Using Health Website Symptom Checkers

A woman with a cold using a computer.
A woman with a cold using a computer. Cultura RM Exclusive/Colin Hawkins/Getty Images

Have you used an online symptom checker? It's the middle of the night and you can't sleep because your back is bothering you again. Or you just had a dizzy spell which caused you to feel faint. Or you've noticed for the past few weeks that you get heartburn when you lie down in bed at night and you wonder what could be causing it.

You know you should probably call to make a doctor's appointment. But you are a bit fearful of what she might tell you.

And you don't really want to take time out of your day or bother your doctor, if it's really "nothing."

We are all curious! And most of us are impatient, too. Information is so easily and readily available on the Internet that we can't help but pursue the information.

So you log on to your favorite health-related website or open their mobile app because you know it features one of those symptom checking applications. You want to figure out what the possibilities might be. At least then you'll know whether to make an appointment. Further, if you do see your doctor, you'll have a clue about your eventual diagnosis.

Thinking about that back problem that's been bothering you, you choose the right body area, you select your gender and age, and you answer all the questions about possible triggers for your back ache. The conclusion? It could be anywhere from a mild strain to kidney failure to a problem with osteoporosis.

In every case, the bottom line suggestions might offer some ideas for symptom relief, but most tell you to make an appointment with your doctor.

Have You Really Learned Anything from the Symptom Checker?

That research about your back points out the real problem; answers are rarely short and clear. It's often difficult to arrive at one, accurate conclusion.

Most online symptom checkers provide you with little to no information you don't already have. There are reasons they aren't more specific and accurate.

  • Disclaimers: The first reason can be found in the symptom checker's disclaimer, the statement that tells you that what you find online should never substitute for real medical advice. No matter what medical problem drove you to a symptom checker to begin with, the most frequent conclusion you'll find is to make an appointment with your doctor.
  • Liability: Another reason is liability. Knowing how little chance there is a Web application can accurately diagnose you, most symptom checkers don't want you thinking you have X if what you really have is Y. They can't be held liable for your wrong conclusion.
  • Treatment: Correct treatment is the third, and perhaps the most important point. If you do have something that requires a doctor's recommended treatment, then you'll need to see the doctor anyway. Delaying an appointment with your doctor can have very negative consequences.

    In the past few years, some symptom checkers have become far more useful to patients, using data and protocols that used to be available only to doctors. In fact, some are sophisticated enough to help you diagnose yourself from the information you find online.

    But regardless of the sophistication or accurate results, you'll still need to work with your doctor to confirm or refute your findings, and of course, to prescribe the treatment you need.

    What Can You Learn from Web Symptom Checkers?

    You can learn possibilities. And possibilities will do at least three things for you.

    • First, they will manage your expectations so that you will be less likely to be dumbfounded if your doctor tells you that your problem is a difficult one.
    • Second, they will suggest options that you can learn more about, in preparation for your doctor's appointment.
    • Third, they will provide confidence that your diagnostic process is leading to the best answer.

    So Should You Use Online Symptom Checkers or Not?

    As long as you realize that these online applications don't substitute for the many years of education your doctor has, and can't always predict a diagnosis without test results and other evidence, then you can proceed with caution to satisfy your curiosity and prepare yourself for your doctor visits.

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