Symptom Checkers – how they can help us deal with the pandemic
More than two years ago, an unknown virus turned the world upside down. Ever since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, things haven't been the same. While healthcare systems were being pushed to the limit and emergency numbers overloaded, many people were reluctant to see a doctor out of fear of contracting Covid. This is where digital health assistants can help – and much more besides.
Fake News on the rise
The pandemic taught us that providing patients with reliable health information is essential for providing quality medical care. For months, harmful medical advice, improper diagnostic methods, and absurd fake news have been circulating through Facebook, WhatsApp, and the like. And subsequently in our heads. We read about Chlorine dioxide being the cure for COVID-19 or that holding one’s breath is the best way to diagnose the disease. Such claims can be not only highly misleading but also really dangerous. But when patients receive evidence-based and trustworthy feedback, such as from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has taken a close look at some of these myths, misinformation from unreliable sources can be easily debunked. This is also where medically certified symptom checkers like the one from XUND can provide valuable educational work.
Symptom checkers as the first point of contact
A total of 61 % of women and 45 % of men search online for explanations for their complaints, as a survey by the German digital association Bitkom shows. This is where symptom checkers provide major benefits: They are not only available 24/7 but can also serve as the first digital point of contact when no doctor is immediately available. The patients quickly receive an initial assessment of their health situation, something that can prove to be an enormous advantage, especially in times of lockdown and social distancing. Along with providing reliable preliminary assessments, digital health assistants often also offer guidance on the right next steps, such as recommending additional examinations or preventive quarantine. This can reduce the risk of further infections while relieving the burden on the healthcare system in challenging times.
These COVID-19-specific tools were developed almost overnight and quickly implemented by many health organizations around the world. The aim is to provide patients with trustworthy information instantly and in an easy way. The principle is simple: patients are asked a series of questions that could potentially indicate an infection with COVID-19. The systems, which are usually based on recommended guidelines from organizations such as the WHO, process the information received and then provide a preliminary assessment.
Innovation through self-learning systems
Especially with a relatively new type of disease like COVID-19, information must be constantly updated and incorporated into the symptom checkers. Any tools that were launched in the spring of 2020 would no longer be of any relevance today if they were not adapted to the constantly changing evidence base. In the early days of the pandemic, coughing was identified as a leading symptom. Only much later, after the relevant studies and facts were available, it became clear that other symptoms, such as fever or loss of taste and smell, among others, allow much better recognition and differentiation from similar conditions such as influenza.
In any case, the pandemic has shown that symptom checkers can be helpful tools for the healthcare system, especially if they meet the high quality and safety standards required. They were never designed to replace doctors, but to save patients the time and effort of making unnecessary visits. Meanwhile, doctors are also opening up to the idea of working together with digital health assistants. Another survey by Bitkom showed that 7 out of 10 doctors see digital technologies as a great opportunity. However, for both patients and healthcare professionals to benefit from digital health solutions such as symptom checkers, one must first separate the sheep from the goats. Only applications certified as medical devices can provide the comprehensible and trustworthy support that is needed for all those involved.
How does XUND deal with COVID-19
Our medical decision-making algorithms, which we refer to as Medical Engine, are based on two pillars from the beginning: a quantitative and qualitative one. To be able to correctly assess COVID-19 symptoms, we analyzed more than 100,000 publicly accessible publications of the CORD-19 Challenge with our AI solution DISCO and the support of the Technical University of Vienna and the Medical University of Graz. This was followed by our team of doctors incorporating their practical experience into the qualitative assessment, similar to what we do for all other conditions mapped in XUND. By combining both of these worlds, we can ensure that the highest quality standards are met. XUND is also classified as a medical device and bears the CE mark.
Another decisive factor is that we do not look at COVID-19 in isolation, but also in relation to other possible causes. Because only by looking at the whole picture we can help patients in every health situation.