Are online symptoms checkers useful for patients with inflammatory arthritis?

Lucy Powley, Graham Mcilroy, Gwenda Simons, Karim Raza

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BackgroundOnline symptom checkers are increasingly used by patients however there is little published evidence of their effectiveness in real patients. The aim of this study was to evaluate how patients with inflammatory arthritis and inflammatory arthralgia use the internet to look for health information and to assess the advice given and diagnoses suggested by the NHS and WebMD symptom checkers in relation to the patients’ actual diagnoses.MethodsThirty-four patients with inflammatory arthritis (rheumatoid arthritis (n = 13), psoriatic arthritis (n = 4), unclassified arthritis (n = 4)) and inflammatory arthralgia (n = 13) newly presenting to a secondary care based clinic were identified using a consecutive sampling approach. Consenting patients were asked questions about their internet use in relation to their presenting symptoms. They then completed the NHS and the WebMD symptom checkers and their answers and the outcomes were recorded.ResultsSixteen patients had previously consulted the internet regarding their symptoms. Neither age nor gender significantly influenced internet usage. Actions advised via the NHS symptom checker were: call an ambulance (n = 11), attend A&E (n = 4), contact your GP straight away (n = 2), see your GP today (n = 6), or see your GP within 36 h (n = 11). The 5 most common differential diagnoses given by Web MD were gout (n = 28), rheumatoid arthritis (n = 24), psoriatic arthritis (n = 22), osteoarthritis (n = 18) and finger dislocation (n = 10). The most common first differential diagnosis was osteoarthritis (n = 12). Only 4 out of 21 patients with inflammatory arthritis were given a first diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis.ConclusionsOur data highlight that help seeking advice given online is often inappropriate and that the diagnoses suggested are frequently inaccurate. Recommendations to seek emergency advice may cause inappropriate healthcare utilization.
Original languageEnglish
Article number362
JournalBMC Musculoskeletal Disorders
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 24 Aug 2016


  • Inflammatory arthritis
  • Arthralgia
  • Internet
  • Symptom checker


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