Objective: To determine the diagnostic and triage accuracy of online symptom checkers (tools that use computer algorithms to help patients with self diagnosis or self triage).
Design: Audit study.
Setting: Publicly available, free symptom checkers.
Participants: 23 symptom checkers that were in English and provided advice across a range of conditions. 45 standardized patient vignettes were compiled and equally divided into three categories of triage urgency: emergent care required (for example, pulmonary embolism), non-emergent care reasonable (for example, otitis media), and self care reasonable (for example, viral upper respiratory tract infection).
Main outcome measures: For symptom checkers that provided a diagnosis, our main outcomes were whether the symptom checker listed the correct diagnosis first or within the first 20 potential diagnoses (n=770 standardized patient evaluations). For symptom checkers that provided a triage recommendation, our main outcomes were whether the symptom checker correctly recommended emergent care, non-emergent care, or self care (n=532 standardized patient evaluations).
Results: The 23 symptom checkers provided the correct diagnosis first in 34% (95% confidence interval 31% to 37%) of standardized patient evaluations, listed the correct diagnosis within the top 20 diagnoses given in 58% (55% to 62%) of standardized patient evaluations, and provided the appropriate triage advice in 57% (52% to 61%) of standardized patient evaluations. Triage performance varied by urgency of condition, with appropriate triage advice provided in 80% (95% confidence interval 75% to 86%) of emergent cases, 55% (47% to 63%) of non-emergent cases, and 33% (26% to 40%) of self care cases (P<0.001). Performance on appropriate triage advice across the 23 individual symptom checkers ranged from 33% (95% confidence interval 19% to 48%) to 78% (64% to 91%) of standardized patient evaluations.
Conclusions: Symptom checkers had deficits in both triage and diagnosis. Triage advice from symptom checkers is generally risk averse, encouraging users to seek care for conditions where self care is reasonable.
© Semigran et al 2015.