Symptom Checkers – Are They Helpful?

11 04 2011

Dawn, our handy dandy Outreach Coordinator, was sick the other day with an assortment of symptoms, including headache, body aches, mild fever, sinus pressure and fatigue. Rather than calling the doctor, she turned to the WebMD symptom checker app on her iPhone to see what was up.

After answering a string of questions, including was her fever “made worse by intravenous drug use” or were her body aches “made worse by swimming in infested waters,” she arrived at a list of possible diagnoses. They ranged from common ailments such as flu, acute sinusitis and sunburn, to the more serious lupus, cryptococcosis and dengue fever.

She wasn’t impressed. “It didn’t help at all,” she said. “I was more dismissive of the usefulness of the tool. It gave me conditions that weren’t even possible, like sunburn, alongside ones that were much more likely like sinusitis.” 

We wanted to know what others had experienced when using symptom checkers, so we did an unscientific study and asked a few people.

One physician, preferring to remain anonymous, said:

I happen to like healthychildren.org symptom checker because most of the time the algorithms are correct and it can take pressure off our phone nurses.

Pam Ladds, a nurse and Facebook fan, said:

When used intelligently, they can be really helpful. Unfortunately, modern medical practices tend not to look at the whole person – merely a part or an orifice. I’ve seen several people who finally got a diagnosis and appropriate treatment by searching symptom sites. Of course, the symptom junkies can misuse these sites and drive themselves to insanity. But they can do that anyway! Balance, repeat after me, balance 🙂

Lynn, from the National Meningitis Association, also replied to the question we posed on Facebook:

I agree that all symptom checkers seem to include a cancer diagnosis.  Being a very nervous person myself, I have to force myself to not look up my symptoms, because I always feel worse afterwards.  I know that’s not the intent of the websites (and I’m only talking about the reputable ones – Mayo, etc.), but they have to cover every possibility.

So, I am not sure about using symptom checkers.  With meningitis, we list the obvious ones – headache, high fever, nausea, vomiting, etc.  But, if I look up one of the many GI symptoms I have, it can range from stress-induced to cancer, so my mind jumps to the worst conclusion. 

What do you think? Do symptom checker sites do more harm than good? Do they help parents put symptoms in perspective? Do we love them or loathe them?





Labor Inductions Lead to Earlier Births

11 06 2010

It is my personal belief that pregnant women who are less than 6 feet tall should not be allowed to carry twins. Not literally, of course, but as a 5’3” pregnant woman carrying twins, I more or less cried with relief when my OB recommended an induction at 39 weeks.

Given a recent study which associates an increased rate of induction with lower birth weight and earlier birth, I ought to have paused a bit before submitting to the induction.

In the study, researchers found a correlation between the increased rate of induced labor in the U.S. (48% between 1993 and 2003) and earlier births, as well as lower birth weight.

Circumstances which merit an induction are hotly debated, with some decrying most inductions as invasive and unnecessary while others maintain that better technologies allow for more medically appropriate interventions.

Possible reasons for an induction include:

• Fetal distress

• Uterine infection

• 10 days past estimated due date

• Maternal medical condition

The reasons for the increased rate of induction were not investigated as part of this study, but the resulting earlier births and lower birth weights are of concern because of their correlation with complications such as respiratory infections and related illnesses. And the increased usage of labor induction could be a bellwether of further complications for newborns.

Most traditional healthcare providers will recommend against inducing labor unless it’s deemed medically necessary. Despite the temptation to push labor along using various “natural” methods, the Mayo Clinic recommends instead that you:

1. Stay in touch with your healthcare provider

2. Turn on your answering machine/voicemail

3. Relax and let nature take its course.

(Rachael Brownell is the statuesque mother of three adorable munchkins, and PKIDs’ Director of Outreach.)


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