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?