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GPs twice as good as apps at diagnosing illness, study finds

GPs outperform symptom checker apps by two to one when diagnosing illnesses, new US research has revealed in the first ever study of its kind.

The study, which comes as NHS patients will be able to register with GPs and get medical advice through a smartphone app by the end of next year, found that physicians were far more accurate than the symptom-checker apps, listing the correct diagnosis first 72.1% of the time, compared with 34% of the time for the digital platforms.

And 84% percent of clinicians listed the correct diagnosis in the top three possibilities, compared with 51% for the digital symptom-checkers.

The difference between physician and computer performance was most dramatic in more severe and less common conditions, the research revealed. It was smaller for less acute and more common illnesses.

The researchers, from Harvard Medical School and Boston-based Brigham and Women’s Hospital, used 45 standardised patient cases to test the accuracy of 234 GPs against 23 symptom checkers.

The cases were scenarios that included the symptoms and history of the patient, but did not contain physical exam or test findings, and ranged from very serious diagnoses to benign situations.

Senior investigator Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said: ‘While the computer programs were clearly inferior to physicians in terms of diagnostic accuracy, it will be critical to study future generations of computer programs that may be more accurate.

‘Clinical diagnosis is currently as much art as it is science, but there is great promise for technology to help augment clinical diagnoses. That is the true value proposition of these tools.’

The research, Comparison of Physician and Computer Diagnostic Accuracy is published in JAMA Internal Medicine.