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How symptom checkers can overcome five challenges facing healthcare decision-makers

(Image credit: Image Credit: Photo_Concepts / iStock)

As demand on the healthcare industry increases and the healthcare model adapts to meet the needs of a population requiring more complex care, providers will need to step up their offerings. This may feel like a mammoth task, but technology can be utilized to streamline processes and relieve pressure on healthcare service providers and medical practitioners around the world.

Specifically, digital AI symptom health checkers can support not only healthcare professionals, but patients through enhanced experience too. With their ability to simulate how doctors think and analyze symptoms to provide quick, accurate medical guidance, while also helping to spot population-level health trends, their significant role should not be overlooked.

Questions to consider then are: how can symptom checkers be used to help reach quicker and better outcomes? And what industry-wide challenges can they help conquer?

1.       Directing patients to the right level of care to reduce unnecessary visits 

A recent Symptomate study into the use of AI symptom checkers revealed that 40.5 percent of users who approach medical services don’t know the type of health support they need. This trend is apparent across the health industry, with many either not seeking medical help despite presenting symptoms due to a lack of guidance, resulting in increased costs and possible preventable complications later down the line. Or patients making unnecessary visits to emergency rooms or doctors’ surgeries, which according to NHS England cost £30 for each appointment, using up finite healthcare resources and elongating waiting times for patients that do require help.

According to the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research on emergency room attendance, many appointments and the associated costs can be avoided. For instance, some patients are there unnecessarily because they are struggling to see a general practitioner (GP), perhaps due to time of day, doctor availability or location.

Symptom checkers can reduce unnecessary visits because they analyze patients' health before recommending the appropriate level of care, meaning they are an effective tool for non-binding preliminary medical advice. The aforementioned Symptomate study also found that 27.9 percent of users who intended to visit a doctor in-person were instead advised to follow a new path, such as self-care at home. This illustrates the capabilities of diagnostic tools to streamline the patient journey and reduce the number of people in waiting rooms.

The use of symptom checking tools is particularly potent as the healthcare industry accelerates further into its digital revolution. McKinsey reports that 73 percent of healthcare consumers choose to use digital solutions to find a doctor. As such, by empowering patients with digital health symptom checkers that can advise on the level of care required, patience experience can be enhanced.

2.       Overburdened medical professionals

According to a report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, by 2034, the US will face a shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians. This is a significant gap to fill for doctors who are already stretched. Burnout is a very real risk facing doctors globally and the impact cannot be underestimated.

Adopting fast-learning AI-based symptom checking into the diagnosis process supports doctors and can help alleviate the administrative burden while also collating all patient data into one place. This helps to reduce the pressures doctors face throughout the consultation process and beyond by giving them greater resources to make informed decisions more quickly. This can boost job satisfaction as they can focus on those with more serious conditions while not getting bogged down in the more mundane, but crucial, aspects of the role.

Additionally, symptom checkers can ease the pressure on GPs, and relieve healthcare bottlenecks. It was reported in the Symptomate study that only a third of patients who should consult a specialist needed to see a GP first. By receiving this information immediately and removing steps out of the diagnosis process, it frees up doctors’ valuable time whilst informing them with the rich information needed to make timely and accurate recommendations. This prevents healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed and ensures that those who need specialist care can be seen quickly. Access to data about recommended specialists is also an important asset for healthcare managers and decision-makers, who can use this information to inform adjustments in staffing or resource allocation.

3.       Efficient data records help deliver a better service

Symptom checkers can not only reduce the number of patients in the waiting room, but they can also reduce the amount of time spent on repetitive, administrative tasks. As such, increasing time for patient-physician communication, and overall job-satisfaction for medical practitioners, as well as streamlining the healthcare system and reducing staffing overheads for overburdened patient services.

Patient data collected by symptom checkers can be integrated with existing electronic health records, which means that tasks are always up-to-date. From filling out registry forms, to retrieving medical history and analyzing reports, digital symptom checkers can be used to manage a range of administrative processes.

They can allow physicians to see data ahead of the visit, use initial diagnosis to propose additional tests before consultation, and be better prepared for dialogue with the patients. This not only makes health professionals’ workloads lighter but it improves patient experience. It means that doctors and healthcare managers don’t need to ask the same questions over again and teams can instead spend their time fostering valuable eye-level relationships with patients.

4.    Personalized health services

Every symptom check provides insight into patient diagnosis, acuity level, suggested communication channel and indicates which specialist is relevant. While this information isn’t initially important to the user, healthcare providers can use this information to optimize their existing services. For instance, they can generate a list of appropriate, personalized services and can follow up if there’s no response to the recommendations provided.

What’s more, healthcare managers can use the information to inform schedules and actively manage incoming patients. This is valuable because they can either propose longer or shorter wait times, allowing those with higher triage levels to be seen urgently.

5.       Telehealth use

Telemedicine can go hand-in-hand with symptom checkers, with any personalized service also including the ability to see a healthcare professional remotely. Indeed, it’s no surprise that since the pandemic its use has accelerated, with McKinsey reporting a dramatic increase in use from 11 percent in 2019 to 46 percent in 2020. It means consultations can take place via video, text, and chat for non-urgent cases, but also can be used for same-day prescription refills or mental health support.

The events of the last 18 months, with fewer face-to-face consultations available, has demonstrated the importance of having diversified communications channels between service providers and patients. The Symptomate survey revealed that 20 percent of respondents, who were recommended to a consultation, were advised to do so via telemedicine initially. Communication channels must be broadened to reflect the needs of generations and, with this, the healthcare industry will become more inclusive while still keeping patients and physicians safe during these uncertain times.

Ultimately, any type of technology that is employed in the healthcare industry needs to integrate seamlessly into clinical workflow and existing systems to overcome industry-wide challenges, as any change will have serious repercussions on people. It’s clear that digital health symptom checkers, that simulate how doctors think, can be used to reach better and quicker outcomes for both healthcare professionals and the patients. From streamlining processes and improving patient triage, to reducing the number of unnecessary visits and burden on staff, it’s important that healthcare managers recognize the value of the technology.

Piotr Orzechowski, Founder and CEO, Infermedica (opens in new tab)

Piotr Orzechowski, CEO of Infermedica.