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Dermatologists Warn About Online Symptom Checkers

Research shows that online symptom checkers inaccurately diagnose skin rashes

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Prior studies outside of dermatology show that online symptom checkers are not very accurate. Image for illustration purposes
Prior studies outside of dermatology show that online symptom checkers are not very accurate. Image for illustration purposes
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Mega Doctor News

By American Academy of Dermatology

Newswise — ROSEMONT, Ill. —Thanks to the internet, we have the world at our fingertips, and with just a few clicks, we can easily enter our medical symptoms into websites and apps to self-diagnose illnesses. However, a new article published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reveals that online symptom checkers are often inaccurate in identifying skin rashes.

“While trying to diagnose your rash with online symptom checkers can seem like a time and money saver, your health may be worth a trip to a dermatologist,” said board-certified dermatologist and study co-author Yul Yang MD, PhD, FAAD. “Prior studies outside of dermatology show that online symptom checkers are not very accurate. This is very concerning because inaccurate diagnoses can result in delayed or improper treatment.”

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The study measured the ability of 8 well-known symptom checkers to correctly diagnose 15 different skin rashes in adults and children based on information provided by three board-certified dermatologists. The rashes ranged from very common conditions like pediatric atopic dermatitis, psoriasis and rosacea, to less common conditions like dermatitis herpetiformis, erythema nodosum and lichen sclerosus.

The symptom checkers correctly diagnosed skin rashes in only 37 of 120 (30.8%) entries. Although the tested symptom checkers were more accurate in diagnosing pediatric atopic dermatitis (75%) and shingles (62.5%), no symptom checker correctly diagnosed dermatitis herpetiformis. Additionally, only one symptom checker correctly identified erythema nodosum, hidradenitis suppurativa, lichen sclerosus, or perioral dermatitis.

“The study showed that symptom checkers have poor accuracy in diagnosing skin rashes because they don’t always ask about patients’ relevant medical history and not enough data is available to make accurate diagnoses,” said Dr. Yang. “The use of online symptom checkers can be harmful for patients as they may give the wrong diagnosis, which would worsen the patient’s pain and suffering, and delay necessary medical care.”

Dermatologists treat more than 3,000 conditions that affect the skin, hair, and nails. Skin diseases are especially common and affect one in four Americans each year.

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“Whether it’s rashes, acne, wrinkles, or melanoma, skin issues can have a serious impact on your health and well-being,” said Dr. Yang. “Even if the condition is not life-threatening, it may reduce a person’s quality of life, causing extreme discomfort, loss of sleep, poor self-image, depression, lost productivity, and even permanent disfigurement. What seems like a simple rash might be a sign of an underlying internal disease. For example, an itchy rash could be hives, scabies, or a skin reaction called contact dermatitis, or even the first sign of kidney or liver failure. Since every disease requires a different treatment, your dermatologist knows what to look for to make sure you get the right treatment for you and your skin.”

Skin conditions may also be linked with other diseases. For example, people living with psoriasis have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol, and diabetes, which cannot be diagnosed with a symptom checker.

“With widespread use of online health information, it’s important to know that symptom checkers may not be currently useful for the diagnosis of skin rashes,” said Dr. Yang. “These symptom checkers shouldn’t take the place of seeing a board-certified dermatologist.”

If you have concerns about your skin, contact a board-certified dermatologist. To find a board-certified dermatologist in your area, visit aad.org/findaderm.

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