How to Use a Symptom Checker Effectively

A symptom checker is an online program that allows you to assess your health immediately and independently. Most checkers are quick and easy to use. You simply open your internet browser, pull up the checker and answer a series of questions about the symptoms you are experiencing.

The checker will process your answers through a complex algorithm. Then, it will then provide you with a list of results of the various medical conditions those symptoms may be representative of or related to. Depending upon the symptoms entered, the checker may also offer advice on whether or not to seek immediate medical treatment.

The WebMD symptom checker is perhaps the most well-known, but it is far from the only version available. MedicineNet.com and the Mayo Clinic offer regularly-used online symptom checkers, as well. Some symptom checker sites also offer online doctor consultations.

About the Benefits of a Symptom Checker

Online symptom checkers provide individuals and families with an array of benefits, ranging from prevention to diagnosis to treatment. Symptom checkers:

  • Help patients clarify their symptoms. The average person has a limited vocabulary with which to describe symptoms he or she is experiencing. For example, you may know that you have a rash, but rarely will you be able to distinguish between different types of rashes unless you have had them before.

    When you check symptoms online and type in what you know, such as “rash,” the program typically offers you good quality photos and descriptions that can help you more specifically identify what type of rash, such as eczema or an allergic reaction, you are experiencing.

    This can substantially improve your ability to find the right information and make informed decisions about seeking care and treatment.
  • Help patients assess the urgency of their symptoms. When you or a family member is ill or suffering from an unidentified ailment, it can be extremely stressful. Seeking out medical care, unfortunately, can also be stressful, particularly if there are work and school schedules, transportation challenges and other factors to juggle. Pursuing medical care can be challenging or expensive as well, especially on weekends, holidays and other low-service, high-demand times.

    Self diagnosis via the WebMD symptom checker or another program can give you the information and confidence you need to make good decisions about how quickly you actually need care. This can save you time, stress and money.

    Alternatively, it may save your life if you discover that seemingly mild or unimportant symptoms can indicate serious health conditions for which you are at risk.  
  • Provide patients with information on home treatment options. When you check symptoms, the programs typically supply information on the treatments approved for use on symptoms you entered and associated conditions.

    These may include simple, inexpensive steps you can take at home as a first step, such as over-the-counter medications, proper hydration, rest or the application of heat or ice. These steps can help you take care of yourself until you can get professional care, and may prevent you from needing official care at all.  
  • Provide information and links to additional qualified resources regarding professional care. A symptom checker can also serve as first-line education on the professional medical treatments associated with various symptoms and conditions. It can introduce you to the general scope and severity of your situation, if you have been properly diagnosed with something.

It can also serve as a starting point for self-education if you want to explore possible alternatives among treatments recommended by your health care providers.

Disadvantages of a Symptom Checker

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) warns that no-cost online symptom checkers often fail to correctly diagnose users’ symptoms on the first attempt. They also advise users to seek medical care more often than is necessary, out of an overabundance of caution. Moreover, not all checkers are equally helpful:

  • Some checkers are not available via mobile apps, tablets or other portable devices. Users were required to have access to internet-connected computers to access them.
  • Some checkers are only available in English, without photographs, diagrams or other aids to assist people who struggle with reading or the vocabulary involved.
  • Checkers may only allow users to search one symptom at a time. This can force users to spend a significant amount of time entering and re-entering information and then manually cross-checking the results. Alternatively, users may focus on the wrong symptom and get unhelpful results entirely.
  • Symptom checkers such as the one run by the Mayo Clinic only allow users to print a single copy of their results. This can make it difficult for them to share their results with medical professionals if they seek assistance, or to reference them later.
  • Nearly all programs require users to have a basic level of computer literacy and the ability to type. Users with vision challenges or physical disabilities that limit their ability to read and type may have unreasonable difficulty accessing these programs.

On average, the programs were most accurate and helpful in diagnosing and dispensing advice on emergency situations. For non-emergency situations, they returned an accurate diagnosis just over 30 percent of the time and listed the correct diagnosis in their lists of 20 most likely diagnoses in slightly less than 60 percent of cases.

While the WebMD symptom checker and programs like it obviously serve valuable functions, they are still under development. Until they sufficiently improve, they can sometimes cause patients unnecessary alarm and expense by misdiagnosing conditions and sending patients for professional medical care when home treatment would have been adequate and appropriate.

When to Consult Your Doctor

There are many benefits to the kind of self diagnosis that symptom checker programs make possible. However, in some cases, it is best to consult your physician directly for assistance and guidance. You should see your doctor if:

  • You have pre-diagnosed chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or diabetes, which can cause a wide range of symptoms, pain and complications.
  • You have co-morbid, congenital or acute conditions which make your health precarious and put you at high-risk for illness and complications.
  • You recently began taking new medications, new combinations of medications or new dosages of medications that may be causing your symptoms.