Research Alert

Background: Symptom checkers are digital tools assisting laypersons in self-assessing the urgency and potential causes of their medical complaints. They are widely used but face concerns from both patients and health care professionals, especially regarding their accuracy. A 2015 landmark study substantiated these concerns using case vignettes to demonstrate that symptom checkers commonly err in their triage assessment.

Objective: This study aims to revisit the landmark index study to investigate whether and how symptom checkers’ capabilities have evolved since 2015 and how they currently compare with laypersons’ stand-alone triage appraisal.

Methods: In early 2020, we searched for smartphone and web-based applications providing triage advice. We evaluated these apps on the same 45 case vignettes as the index study. Using descriptive statistics, we compared our findings with those of the index study and with publicly available data on laypersons’ triage capability.

Results: We retrieved 22 symptom checkers providing triage advice. The median triage accuracy in 2020 (55.8%, IQR 15.1%) was close to that in 2015 (59.1%, IQR 15.5%). The apps in 2020 were less risk averse (odds 1.11:1, the ratio of overtriage errors to undertriage errors) than those in 2015 (odds 2.82:1), missing >40% of emergencies. Few apps outperformed laypersons in either deciding whether emergency care was required or whether self-care was sufficient. No apps outperformed the laypersons on both decisions.

Conclusions: Triage performance of symptom checkers has, on average, not improved over the course of 5 years. It decreased in 2 use cases (advice on when emergency care is required and when no health care is needed for the moment). However, triage capability varies widely within the sample of symptom checkers. Whether it is beneficial to seek advice from symptom checkers depends on the app chosen and on the specific question to be answered. Future research should develop resources (eg, case vignette repositories) to audit the capabilities of symptom checkers continuously and independently and provide guidance on when and to whom they should be recommended.

Journal Link: Journal of Medical Internet Research

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Journal of Medical Internet Research