Studies show that one in three adults researches their symptoms online through online symptom checkers similar to the ones on WebMD. However, these checkers are not foolproof. According to a study published in 2019, some of the highest-performing symptom checkers had only a 58 percent success rate when it came to correctly identifying common illnesses, compared to 70 percent rate by physicians. Despite their lack of accuracy, symptom checkers are available in many medical settings, including outpatient and pediatrics.
Symptom trackers, as opposed to checkers, allow patients to log and track their symptoms and wellness. They are not designed to diagnose or help patients treat any disease, but they can be a handy record to have when visiting a primary care physician.
Instead of focusing on increasing the accuracy of symptom checkers, there is a stronger push to make symptom trackers widely available in the market. The COVID-19 pandemic spurred interest and growth in symptom tracker development that may cement such apps’ place in primary care.
The COVID-19 Pandemic and Symptom Trackers
The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic spurred demand for ways to consolidate patient data quickly. One of the most efficient ways to do this was with a mobile symptom tracker. To help guide patients to appropriate care and reduce emergency department visits, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created a Coronavirus symptom checker and other government organizations, including the Virginia Department of Health, followed suit with their COVID-19 mobile symptom tracker apps.
The Virginia app, known as COVIDWISE, helped disseminate critical information about CDC guidelines and warned Virginia residents if they traveled to an area where an outbreak of the virus had been reported. The data helped the Virginia Department of Health track which areas of the state were disproportionately affected compared to others, and how many new cases they were seeing each day.
On a larger scale, self-reported patient data in symptom trackers helped researchers identify common symptoms of the COVID-19 virus, as well as what patient demographic had the most cases. This self-reported data also provided the information needed for a predictive analytics model that helped identify potential outbreaks in other areas of the country. Additionally, the apps helped healthcare workers triage cases appropriately to reduce healthcare waste.
Once the COVID-19 vaccines were widely available for distribution, the CDC repurposed the same technology and created an app, v-safe, to help track side effects of the vaccine. V-safe sent text reminders to check in with the app and guided patients about when they should contact their physician.
The Potential for Symptom Trackers in Primary Care
As symptom trackers evolve into data acquisition tools, how can they best be integrated into primary care? Assuming the technology advances to meet clinical standards, these trackers have massive potential for population health management, value-based care, and future research.
When it comes to population health, symptom trackers may help physicians identify patients whose symptoms are a sign of a more serious condition so they can intervene before more expensive medical services are required. Additionally, symptom trackers can help patients identify whose symptoms have reached the severity necessitating they schedule an appointment with their physician, which in turn can help reduce unnecessary tests and healthcare expenditures. Researchers and developers can use self-reported data to identify patterns, build predictive models, and create better healthcare tech, as occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Symptom trackers have demonstrated tremendous potential for predictive analytics and appropriate triaging, and are a potentially useful form of health tech in the future of population health management. As physician shortages increase and administrative burdens pile on existing primary care providers, there will be a need for new and accessible technology that can help engage patients in their care to help them live longer, healthier lives.