Doctors are worried about diagnosis apps. Photo: Benjamin TorodeIt is marketed as being “smarter than human doctors” and the “world’s most accurate health diagnosis service”.
It is a medical app on your smartphone that invites you to put in a list of symptoms to find the most likely explanation. According to the company that created Ada, the app includes 10,000 symptoms and diseases and was developed by 100 doctors, making it more knowledgeable than any human brain.
But for all its promises, leading Australian GPs are urging consumers to be wary of it and other apps that make similar claims. Both the Australian Medical Association and Royal Australian College of GPs said they were concerned about the accuracy of the Ada system, and its potential to either falsely reassure people about their health or alarm them unnecessarily.
Despite a booming market for health apps, including ones that aim to diagnose, research suggests they may not be as reliable as they appear.
Nathan Pinskier, chairman of the College of GPs’ e-health and technology committee, said while many doctors were starting to use apps to support their clinical decision making and were directing patients towards some for their own health needs, research on such apps showed they were not always accurate and could be dangerous.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done in this space,” the GP said. “It’s fair to say that clinicians can’t remember everything and you do need access to support tools. The question is, how standardised are those support tools and if you enter the same information into different products will you end up with similar outcomes and guidance? The evidence says no at the moment.”
Last year, three studies published in BMC Medicine found that health apps designed to help people calculate insulin dosages, educate them about asthma and perform other important functions were methodologically weak. The researchers also found that many apps lacked reliable privacy and security settings, with one sharing personally identifying data about users that should have been kept anonymous.
President of the College of GPs Frank Jones said that while he did not mind people Googling their symptoms before seeing a GP, he was concerned about the accuracy of an app that suggested it could diagnose people. He said users risked misinterpreting their symptoms without a physical examination while using the app.
Ada looks set to connect users with doctors for a consultation after their symptoms have been run through its system, but a recent study highlighted another risk with this: seeing a GP who does not know the patient and their medical history.
The study of more than 1700 Dutch people aged over 60 found that those who had multiple GPs over 17 years were more likely to die during the study period than those who had one GP. Dr Jones said the research published in the British Journal of General Practice highlighted the potential benefits of continuity of care.
While Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration says any medical device that makes a diagnosis should be listed on its register of therapeutic goods, a search of that database does not show Ada on it.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for Ada said she could not answer questions about this because the company’s chief executive was based overseas and was unavailable.
However, the terms and conditions on the app say it is not providing medical advice or diagnosing health conditions, and that it is up to users to decide whether they contact a health professional to seek medical advice after using it. The app says it will not share or sell a user’s data and cannot guarantee it will be error free.
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