Patients' Utilization and Perception of an Artificial Intelligence-Based Symptom Assessment and Advice Technology in a British Primary Care Waiting Room: Exploratory Pilot Study

JMIR Hum Factors. 2020 Jul 10;7(3):e19713. doi: 10.2196/19713.


Background: When someone needs to know whether and when to seek medical attention, there are a range of options to consider. Each will have consequences for the individual (primarily considering trust, convenience, usefulness, and opportunity costs) and for the wider health system (affecting clinical throughput, cost, and system efficiency). Digital symptom assessment technologies that leverage artificial intelligence may help patients navigate to the right type of care with the correct degree of urgency. However, a recent review highlighted a gap in the literature on the real-world usability of these technologies.

Objective: We sought to explore the usability, acceptability, and utility of one such symptom assessment technology, Ada, in a primary care setting.

Methods: Patients with a new complaint attending a primary care clinic in South London were invited to use a custom version of the Ada symptom assessment mobile app. This exploratory pilot study was conducted between November 2017 and January 2018 in a practice with 20,000 registered patients. Participants were asked to complete an Ada self-assessment about their presenting complaint on a study smartphone, with assistance provided if required. Perceptions on the app and its utility were collected through a self-completed study questionnaire following completion of the Ada self-assessment.

Results: Over a 3-month period, 523 patients participated. Most were female (n=325, 62.1%), mean age 39.79 years (SD 17.7 years), with a larger proportion (413/506, 81.6%) of working-age individuals (aged 15-64) than the general population (66.0%). Participants rated Ada's ease of use highly, with most (511/522, 97.8%) reporting it was very or quite easy. Most would use Ada again (443/503, 88.1%) and agreed they would recommend it to a friend or relative (444/520, 85.3%). We identified a number of age-related trends among respondents, with a directional trend for more young respondents to report Ada had provided helpful advice (50/54, 93%, 18-24-year olds reported helpful) than older respondents (19/32, 59%, adults aged 70+ reported helpful). We found no sex differences on any of the usability questions fielded. While most respondents reported that using the symptom checker would not have made a difference in their care-seeking behavior (425/494, 86.0%), a sizable minority (63/494, 12.8%) reported they would have used lower-intensity care such as self-care, pharmacy, or delaying their appointment. The proportion was higher for patients aged 18-24 (11/50, 22%) than aged 70+ (0/28, 0%).

Conclusions: In this exploratory pilot study, the digital symptom checker was rated as highly usable and acceptable by patients in a primary care setting. Further research is needed to confirm whether the app might appropriately direct patients to timely care, and understand how this might save resources for the health system. More work is also needed to ensure the benefits accrue equally to older age groups.

Keywords: acceptability; app; eHealth; general practice; health care apps; human-centered design; innovative; primary care; symptom checker; usability; utility.