Conversational AI

How Does an AI Symptom Checker Work?

May 5, 2021

How Does an AI Symptom Checker Work?

There is no shortage of online resources to learn about specific medical conditions, symptoms, and treatments. However, information disseminated via social media networks and websites is often confusing and can increase anxiety for patients. Those who have symptoms that require urgent intervention may end up in the wrong care pathway. Here’s where a symptom checker can help and improve patient outcomes.

What is a Symptom Checker?

Integrated with a hospital’s existing care points, a symptom checker can assess a wide range of patient complaints by severity level and take the guesswork out of the process. So patients get the proper care in the right setting and at the right time, thus preventing unnecessary trips to the emergency room. And while symptom checkers aren’t designed to provide a diagnosis or medical opinion, they can help patients decide on the best course of action and the most appropriate care venue.

With data scientists and medical experts constantly improving the accuracy of symptom checkers, this technology is gaining popularity due to its potential to increase apprehension, prevent unnecessary trips to the doctor’s office, and address the lack of access to primary care in remote locations. Via EHR integration, physicians verify whether the tool’s suggested diagnosis was correct or different. With a closed-loop that allows a near-human level of learning, AI technologies have the potential to improve their diagnostic accuracy continually.

How Does a Symptom Checker App Work?

An AI symptom checker uses natural language processing (NLP) to understand a patient’s free-text symptom description, then guides the patients through a relevant symptom pursuit. After the history of present illness (HPI) is collected, machine learning algorithms assess the patient inputs to produce differential and care recommendations. The differential is typically listed in order of condition severity and level of urgency. For instance, the symptom checker app may recommend self-care for a headache, but modify the recommendation to virtual care, specialty care, or clinic care for appropriate conditions. Advanced AI symptom checkers will cut off the conversation and immediately recommend emergency care if the user enters any symptoms that indicate severe conditions such as heart attack or stroke.  

How Accurate Are Symptom Checkers?

Some symptom checkers are relatively simple, and performance varies by level of urgency. However, recent technological advances have led to machine learning and algorithmic logic changes, resulting in significantly improved diagnostic accuracy. Healthcare providers are increasingly utilizing AI-powered diagnostic tools that learn with each transaction and use memory and historical data to improve the chat experience and care recommendations.

Benefits for Patients

A symptom checker app can encourage a patient with a life-threatening health condition to seek emergency care, such as asthma attacks, severe allergic reactions, and stroke. The program may recommend visiting the doctor’s office for users with non-emergent problems like gastrointestinal illness or urinary tract infection.

Some non-emergent problems such as viral upper respiratory tract infections and simple headaches do not require any intervention beyond OTC drugs. Reducing the number of unnecessary doctor’s visits saves patients money and time and helps limit antibiotic overuse, which has already led to resistant bacteria. Having a tool to utilize the right care at the right time also offers convenience and results in improved clarity and confidence in triage decision-making.

Benefits for Health Care Providers

For healthcare providers, the use of emergency departments for mild, non-urgent conditions can lead to unnecessary treatment and testing, overstretched paramedics and physicians, and excessive spending. Research shows that at least 30 percent of all ED visits in the U.S. are unnecessary and preventable. Patients visiting the emergency department instead of a retail clinic or a physician’s office results in fragmented care that’s poorly coordinated with the patient’s primary healthcare provider. Additionally, hospitals face staffing and capacity challenges resulting from unnecessary ED visits.

Adopting AI technologies can help address these problems and result in ED decongestion, reduced call center volume, and cost savings on poorly utilized care. As symptom checkers have evolved from stand-alone solutions to AI-powered diagnosis and triage tools, they can help hospitals reduce the misuse and overuse of medical care. To address the problem of mis-utilized care and reduce unnecessary medical visits for non-urgent issues, healthcare providers are increasingly adopting digital technologies, like a Digital Front Door® that guides patients to the right endpoints of care. Advanced diagnostic tools have multiple applications, including decision support, preliminary health assessment, and patient triage. These digital solutions provide a cost-effective alternative to nursing call centers to ease the burden on the medical staff.

And while most symptom checkers are stand-alone solutions, there are advanced tools that are embedded into patient portals, hospital websites, and mobile apps. They engage with users, assist with triaging, and improve utilization rates. Such platforms act as a Digital Front Door solution that answers questions, book appointments, conducts symptom screening, helps patients locate a physician or clinic, and navigates them to the most appropriate healthcare venues. Other beneficial functionalities for hospital settings are integration with virtual care and live chat, pre-, and post-visit patient outreach, and pre-visit planning. Thanks to their advanced functionalities, virtual AI assistants enable hospitals to expand patient access and care capacity, reduce costs and physician burnout, while improving patient acquisition and retention.

Greater Patient Satisfaction

A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research examined patient perspectives on the usefulness of AI symptom checkers, taking into account prior personal history, experiences, and user characteristics. The study found that most participants use an online medical diagnosis tool to understand their symptoms (73.6 percent) or to determine the extent of urgency involved (32.2 percent).

Overall, participants reported positive health effects (51 percent), and most patients (84.1 percent) believed it to be a helpful diagnostic tool. The overwhelming majority of respondents, or 91.4 percent, said they would use a symptom checker app again in the future.

The Next Normal for Healthcare

Online diagnostic tools are more accurate and result in better care utilization and cost savings than googling symptoms. As symptom checkers become the norm, patient trust and awareness continue to rise. In the next normal, smart technologies based on machine learning and artificial intelligence will evolve to support flexible symptom input, comprehensive medical history and questions, and diverse users and medical conditions.

Fabric's comprehensive adult & pediatric clinical triage capabilities cover the vast majority of all primary patient complaints. The Fabric symptom checker and was rated the strongest symptom checking and clinical triaging capability in an independent review of AI virtual assistants.


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