Will Symptom Checkers Change Nurse-Patient Dialogue?

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We’ve all been there, and your patients are no exception: You wake up with a weird-sounding cough or a strange headache that won’t go away. Your first response probably isn’t a call to your doctor’s office. Instead, you’d Google it.

Searching online for treatment options provides a certain excitement, but we also know symptom checkers like WebMD aren’t a replacement for nurses, doctors and other clinical physicians.

Recent studies have found symptom checkers offer a correct diagnosis just 34 percent of the time and give appropriate triage advice at a slightly higher rate of 57 percent. Although not as accurate as a trained medical professional, symptom checkers surprisingly offer results comparable to telephone triage lines operated by major health care providers with added convenience.

With Google entering the field of symptom checkers through its knowledge graph tool, now is a good time for nurses to think about how new, more accurate symptom checkers may affect the future of patient care.

Read on to learn more about:

How do Google symptom cards work?

Each month Google processes more than 100 billion searches. A little more than 1 percent are classified as symptom-based, which is when you ask Google about something related to a specific ailment or set of symptoms.

But navigating these results can be difficult and stressful since symptom checkers often offer scary and confusing conclusions that produce unneeded stress and anxiety. For example, if you search for illnesses associated with a runny nose, you may receive information on the common cold and indoor allergens. But you may be directed to resources for nasal polyps, West Nile virus and whooping cough, too.

After just a few minutes of searching, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and scared, which is why Google now screens these symptom queries through a tighter filter. The 400 most common medical search terms — from arthritis to pink eye — also include medical drawings of the symptom or ailment along with comments explaining the frequency of the illness and treatment options.

Will online symptom checkers affect nurse-patient relationships?

Although symptom checkers may prove useful tools, especially for those without access to a health care professional, they present a few challenges for patients and primary care providers like nurses.

Symptom checkers are risk-adverse, which means they have a bias toward patients seeking professional care even in cases where self-care is sufficient. Some recent studies have found certain checkers recommend professional care regardless of user input. Of course, there is a practical reason symptom checkers make such conservative recommendations: If patients decide to not see medical professionals and opt for self-treatment, they may ignore or be oblivious to illnesses with serious consequences that could have been spotted easily by a trained professional.

Increased patient engagement with technology also presents an interesting opportunity for nurses as recent studies have found patients tend to be more honest with computers than health care providers. And when patients are not honest, it is a challenge for nurses to provide sufficient care.

However, symptom checkers may help patients better understand how drug and alcohol abuse, mental health, and reproductive and sexual history affect their health in invisible ways. If patients use symptom checkers before their appointments, clinicians hope patients will better understand the risks associated with not telling doctors and nurses these crucial details. And rather than neglect information that they see as unimportant, patients may come to see how these uncomfortable details matter when it comes to making a correct diagnosis.

Google’s tool isn’t going to solve this vexing problem on its own, but it may help patients be more open when it matters most.

When are symptom checkers the wrong choice?

Beyond the inaccuracy of symptom checkers, nurses should also be careful when working with more tech-savvy patients or those who have a habit of self-diagnosing. After all, patients and medical professionals do not rank symptoms or describe medical problems in the same way.

Generally speaking, patients tend to emphasize — or even fixate — on the most painful or bothersome symptoms, rather than looking for clues and red flags like nurses and doctors do. Medical professionals are trained to look at the whole patient, rather than a few symptoms. And sometimes the most trivial or seemingly unimportant details help nurses and doctors uncover a correct diagnosis, the things no symptom tracker — or perhaps even patient — is likely to take into account.

This context is something symptom checkers are unlikely to master in the near future. A patient may report having chest pain, but having chest pain when playing a sport or doing yard work may indicate something different from chest pain that comes from deep breathing.

Another example: If a patient searches for flu symptoms, it may just be a fever. But if they’ve just come back from a trip in a far-off country, they could also have malaria. The point is demographic information, geography and past health conditions matter a great deal to nurses and doctors when it comes to making a final diagnosis, which is something no symptom checker has shown an ability to account for yet.

A side effect of online symptom searches

There is no question that patients will continue to search online for answers to their health-related problems, even if nurses recommend otherwise. After all, Google is far more convenient and less expensive than visiting a local clinic or doctor’s office. It may even help to create more productive and honest conversations between nurses and patients in the future.

Yet it’s also important to remember that Google is in the business of storing, using and selling information. As a result, nurses and patients who care about the future of public health should worry not just about the accuracy of symptom checkers, but what these developments mean for the future of health care, especially when it comes to privacy and safety.

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