Giving online symptom checkers the hairy eyeball.

Enlarge / Giving online symptom checkers the hairy eyeball. (credit: Carol Munro / Flickr)

In 2015, The BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) did a thorough audit of online symptom checkers. It found that, on average, the sites listed the correct diagnosis first only about a third of the time. Carl Shen, an ophthalmology resident at McMaster University, has led a team of researchers in a small-scale follow-up looking specifically at eye health, and got equally concerning results: the correct diagnoses popped up first only a quarter of the time.

The results, presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology this week, are early and provisional, but Dr. Shen and his team are planning a larger follow-up study. And, in the mean time, WebMD has done an update of its algorithm.

Vignettes of unpleasantries

To assess WebMD’s accuracy, Shen and his colleagues compiled 42 eye-health “clinical vignettes” based on the medical literature. A decidedly unpleasant vignette of someone suffering from acute angle-closure glaucoma, for instance, describes a “44-year-old woman present[ing] to ER… with severe pain around her right eye of four-hour duration… She is also nauseated and has thrown up once… Intraocular pressure is extremely elevated.”

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