Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.
It’s increasingly common for people to head online to research the symptoms they’re experiencing, and last summer I looked at a study that explored the accuracy of the numerous symptom checkers available online.
The diagnosis is sadly not a positive one, with many online services giving out an incorrect diagnosis, although in their defense, they were found to be broadly similar to telephone triage services.
“These tools may be useful in patients who are trying to decide whether they should get to a doctor quickly, but in may cases, users should be cautious and not take the information they receive from online symptom checkers as gospel,” the authors say.
A better approach
A recent study suggests a way for symptom checkers to improve. It found that use of online surveys to collect cancer symptoms resulted in fewer ER admissions, greater adherence to treatment and better life outcomes for the patient.
The system involved automatic email alerts being sent out to health staff when symptoms worsened. This was incredibly effective as previous studies have highlighted how many patient symptoms get missed by doctors during cancer treatment.
“If we had developed a new drug that yielded these kinds of benefits, we would be very excited,” the team say.
“This randomized trial found that integrating systematic collection of patient symptoms via the web into cancer treatment improves multiple key clinical outcomes.”
The study compared the outcome of cancer patients who were reporting symptoms online with those using more traditional methods for sharing them.
The results revealed that those using the online method showed significant improvements in their quality of life, with the online quotient scoring 34% higher than the control group.
The online group also undertook fewer visits to the emergency room and adhered to their treatment for longer. This corresponded to higher survival rates.
“While this study wasn’t designed to evaluate the mechanism of why we saw these improvements, we can hypothesize that by flagging symptoms that clinicians would otherwise miss, we enable earlier symptom management that avoids downstream events like pain crisis, dehydration, or intractable nausea,” the authors say.
Real world improvements
As such, the researchers believe that the main improvement from this kind of process would be a greater awareness of patient symptoms by clinicians, which would hopefully enable earlier intervention than would otherwise be the case.
The next step is to conduct a separate clinical study to test whether regular use of symptom reporting systems can reduce the symptoms of people undergoing chemotherapy.
With symptom checkers only likely to increase in usage, especially as AI systems become smarter, this is an interesting side effect of their use.