Researchers have confirmed that online health diagnosis tools cannot equate a physician’s diagnosis.

Diagnoses corresponding to 45 cases were provided by 234 doctors and 23 symptom-checking apps. The doctors were either pediatricians, family physicians or internists. The interest to analyze the difference between a diagnosis provided by a physician and a symptom-checking app is that over 100 million people use these services.

Diagnosis app
Diagonis app. Image credit: Modernizing Medicine.

‘Hey Siri: Do I have appendicitis?’

The study was carried out by researchers from Harvard, the Human Diagnosis Project, and Brigham & Women’s Hospital. Each clinical case corresponded to a hypothetical patient suffering from a disease with different levels of complexity.

The case vignettes displayed the patient’s medical history and a description of its symptoms, but there was no physical exam, for leveling the doctor’s diagnosing skills with the apps by only using the patient’s description as the only source of information.

Apple’s Siri. Image credit: Apple.

Doctors managed to outperform the computers in accuracy. 84 percent of real physicians correctly diagnosed the disease while the apps failed 49 percent of the cases.

Particularly with severe diseases, doctors were always more reliable than online diagnosis apps, managing to be right 65 percent of the time compared to 41 percent for the computer-based alternative. In cases considered to be easier to diagnose, doctors were right 79 percent of the time, compared to 24 percent for the apps.

Rather than telling people to not use diagnosis tools, the study proposes that doctors and computing tools should join forces to have a wider range of available knowledge to help patients, always minding the doctors’ judgment as a deciding factor due to its years of study.

Lead researcher, Dr. Ateev Mehrotra from Harvard Medical School, commented that the study also tried to establish a factor for comparison with the mistakes made by doctors, as Dr. Mehrotra assures that health professionals commit errors at least 10 percent of the time.

Dr. Mehrotra stated that there are other diagnosis tools that may be better than the ones employed for the study, which appears to be the first of its size to compare the performance of real life doctors and computer symptom-checkers.

“Does this mean computers will never be as good as doctors? Probably not. They’re likely to improve as we go forward generations and generations and they may even surpass doctors, but not right now,” Dr. Mehrotra stated.

The difference between a doctor’s diagnosis and one’s own 

People often reveal to their doctors that they have tried to self-diagnose at some point in their lives. Patients frequently lean towards the worst and most severe diagnosis, causing unnecessary alarm when a doctor could accurately say what is going on.

The study had doctors provide diagnoses based solely on patient vignettes. If the physicians had access to in-person analysis and exam results the accuracy rate would have been significantly higher for real life doctors. But the study does not discard the possibility that patients could use online diagnosis tools to at least screen some of the possible diseases.

According to the Pew Research Center, almost a third of Americans look up medical topics online, whereas 39 percent of the cases were on behalf of a different person. Image credit: Getty Images.

It is also possible for the patient to point out the symptoms and carry out more extensive research about the disease at hand, which could reduce possible diseases. Even if a person does not possess any certifiable medical training, it is possible to learn about diseases and their symptoms, as the internet offers information and pictures that resemble those present in any book of epidemiology.

The study was part of the Internet & American Life Project, published in early 2015. It surveyed 3,014 American adults. It also revealed that women are more likely to look up health information on the internet. This is also true for people living in households that earn $75,000 or more per year, and those that have an education level equivalent to a college degree.

Less than half of the people that went online to self-diagnose did not reach out to a doctor to confirm the diagnosis. Study authors noted that physicians are vital to understanding diseases and diagnosis.

People have always resorted to home remedies to avoid having to visit a doctor, whether it is because of distrust in a professional opinion or just wanting to save money.

In the end, the best solution is to obtain the largest amount of well-funded information, whether it is through symptom-checking apps or certified physicians that have dedicated their lives to understanding illnesses and medical science.

“Historically, people have always tried to answer their health questions at home and made personal choices about whether and when to consult a clinician. Many have now added the internet to their personal health toolbox, helping themselves and their loved ones better understand what might be ailing them,” the study reads.

Source: JAMA