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Do online symptom checkers actually work?

Some sites are helpful while others are online quacks. Find out which are which.

Everyone’s welcomed the Internet into their life in one way or another. One Pew survey suggests that two thirds of adult Americans are using it to diagnose health symptoms. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of point to this when you can’t trust the results you’re given.

The accuracy of online symptom checkers ranges from surprisingly good (above 70%) to exceptionally poor (under 30%). You can’t be completely certain either way, but you can improve your odds by using the right websites and avoiding the worst.

Comparing online symptom checkers

Harvard researchers put these online symptom checkers through their paces with a rigorous series of 45 queries each. 15 queries were for serious symptoms that could be a matter of life and death, another 15 were for middle-ground symptoms that probably wouldn’t kill you but that should send you off to a real doctor and the last 15 were for only minor symptoms.

Of the health conditions they took these symptoms from, 26 were fairly common while the other 19 were more exotic. To be counted as correct, the website had to give the correct diagnosis as either the first result, or within the top three.

The most accurate online symptom checkers

The well-known site WebMD didn’t place too well, coming in with a score of 51%. Only five scored above 60% accuracy.

  • Symcat – 71%. Leading the pack with an accuracy rating of 71% is Symcat. Its diagnostic tools aren’t limited to checking symptoms and affiliated programs can also help you diagnose your 10-year risk of heart attack. It’s a more detailed heart attack risk calculator than other tools out there and is likely to be more accurate too. If you want to find out how likely you are to have a heart attack it could be worth swinging by that risk calculator too.
  • Isabel – 69%. A high score from the everyday-language symptom checker. Isabel claims that it can diagnose symptoms from everyday-language queries. It also claims to have one of the largest illness databases around.
  • Ask MD – 68%. This tool from Sharecare comes in a sleek package and can be used with the Apple Watch and other wearables. It also offers a range of everyday-use health and fitness tracking programs. Symptom checking isn’t easy but it seems that Sharecare might have some decent medical knowledge behind its apps.
  • DocResponse – 67%. An enviable, but not chart-topping, accuracy score of 67% means this site is one of the better symptom checkers available, but perhaps not “the most accurate medical assessment tool on the market” as claimed.
  • iTriage – 64%. The last of sites to score above 60%, iTriage is a symptom checker as well as an all-round dictionary for healthcare procedures and medications. If you’re looking for plain explanations of what different procedures are, it might be useful to use this tool while comparing health insurance coverage.

The least accurate online symptom checkers

BetterMedicine may not have lived up to its name, coming in with a mere 29% accuracy score. EarlyDoc, Symptomate, Esagil and Symptify all had scores of 33% to 36% and might not be all that trustworthy as diagnostic tools.

Even the best online symptom checkers still aren’t entirely trustworthy and it’s clear that there’s still plenty of room for improvement. When you can’t trust the results of a symptom checker, there’s no substitute for an in-person visit to the GP.

How accurate are doctors compared to online symptom checkers?

Even doctors will sometimes use symptom checkers as a starting point, but doctors have a lot of advantages that let them make more accurate diagnoses.

The Australian Medical Association has warned against relying too heavily on health apps and other DIY symptom checking tools, due to their potential to either reassure people when something is actually wrong, or to falsely raise the alarm. Even though some symptom checkers are scoring impressively well for accuracy, some conditions will inevitably require a physical examination or specific tests in order to differentiate them from others. Meanwhile, the individual and complex nature of health means it's important for doctors to know about your personal medical history. These are currently beyond online symptom checkers and health apps, especially for more particular health issues that typically involve diagnosis or treatment from a specialist instead of a GP.

It's also important to note that legally these symptom checkers are not making a diagnosis or providing medical advice, no matter what it seems like. When you visit a real doctor, however, you can receive an actual legal diagnosis, and valid treatment recommendations that you may legally depend on. You will also need to consult a real doctor in order to actually access treatments and get prescriptions.

If you often experience certain symptoms, it may be worth checking whether your health insurance covers after-hours GP visits so you don't have to depend on these tools. Unfortunately, no matter how advanced or accurate these apps get, there are some things that are simply beyond them. For the foreseeable future, health insurance with gap cover looks to be one of the more effective ways of getting free medical examinations.
Picture: Shutterstock

Andrew Munro

Andrew writes for finder.com.au, comparing products, writing guides, sniffing out deals and looking for new ways to help people get the most out of their money.

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