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How symptom checkers can lower the cost of chronic conditions

Chronic diseases are common and costly. Six in ten adults in the US have a chronic illness, while four in ten adults have two or more. According to the CDC, chronic diseases are conditions that last at least one year, need continuous medical attention, or limit daily activities. Think of heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease.

At a glance

AI-powered symptom checkers are raising the game in the diagnosis and management of chronic conditions.
AI-powered symptom checkers are raising the game in the diagnosis and management of chronic conditions. Illustration by Aga Więckowska.

Chronic illnesses are significant drivers of the 3.8 trillion USD in annual healthcare costs in the United States. They cause countless avoidable emergency room visits each year and remain the leading cause of death and disability. Chronic disease-related deaths of working-age people across European Union countries cost an estimated 115 billion EUR annually.

Catching symptoms early is one of the long-hanging fruits in the quest to control healthcare costs. Patients can then receive treatment before their health deteriorates to the point of an ambulance ride or trip to Urgent Care. Symptom checkers are very useful in spotting early signs of disease. They also can catch complications, flare-ups, and recurrences. Here’s how.

Examples of chronic conditions detectable by symptom checkers

Heart failure

Swollen ankles. Wheezing. Shortness of breath. Weight gain. Fatigue. An increased heart rate. Those are just some of the early symptoms of heart failure—a chronic, progressive condition affecting the heart muscle’s pumping power. It often progresses slowly and causes gradual changes in a patient’s body. Since patients may not realize what’s happening, the disease may have an opportunity to progress, sometimes for years. Patients will often minimize their symptoms, thinking that they are due to weather changes or old age. Some patients will only receive a diagnosis in an emergency department once they experience extreme shortness of breath or chest pain.

Heart failure can present as a constellation of symptoms. Symptom checkers can make sense of the overall symptom picture and nudge a patient to take action before their condition gets worse. They can also triage patients and recommend specialists or the appropriate level of care. Early detection of heart failure allows for effective management through lifestyle changes and heart medications.

Diabetes

One of the sneaky parts of diabetes—and one of the reasons why symptom checkers are so valuable for monitoring this chronic condition—is its manifestations in multiple systems. Left undiagnosed, diabetes can lead to nerve damage, blindness, and kidney failure. Symptom checkers, however, can spot the early signs before serious complications arise. The earlier diabetes is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can begin. There are substantial cost savings to reducing preventable complications and adverse events by catching a patient’s illness early in its process. For example, one study estimates that diabetes complications cost $47,000 USD over 30 years, on average. Catching and treating diabetes early can save money by eliminating unnecessary ER visits, ICU admissions, and major surgeries.

Clinical depression

Depression can bring along feelings of sadness, anxiety, agitation, social withdrawal, loss of interest in activities, fatigue, concentration problems, and changes in appetite and sleep patterns. Still, some patients sometimes chalk up a depression recurrence to changes in weather or recent stressors. So how can a symptom checker spot a recurrence?

A seasoned physician is able to intuitively perform a differential diagnosis. Similarly, a symptom checker is designed to emulate a physician’s approach to diagnosis by using a Bayesian logic system to efficiently and accurately whittle down possible causes of symptoms in a matter of minutes. Symptom checkers can therefore catch a recurrence and prompt a patient to seek help right away. This may save lives by preventing suicide—the 10th leading cause of death in the US—but it also reduces corresponding emergency department visits and lengthy ICU admissions.

High blood pressure

Nearly 50% of adults in America have high blood pressure. This “silent killer” can lead to heart attacks, heart failure, or kidney failure. There are clear symptoms of dangerously high blood pressure: chest pain, shortness of breath, severe headaches, vision changes, speaking difficulties, dizziness, weakness, or upper back pain. Still, many individuals have no idea that they have dangerously high blood pressure.

Patients may also experience malignant hypertension, which qualifies as a hypertensive emergency since it can lead to a stroke. Early detection is critical to avoiding hypertension’s life-threatening complications. A symptom checker can spot these and suggest appropriate action.

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Asthma and COPD

Chronic pulmonary diseases have long plagued the healthcare system. COPD exacerbations alone drive up unscheduled care costs. The longer a flare-up goes on, the more likely it is to take a life-threatening turn. Some flare-ups are severe enough to land patients in an intensive care unit for multiple days—a gruelling experience for patients and an expensive proposition for healthcare systems.

Still, some patients downplay the seriousness of their symptoms or mistakenly think it’s just part of having a cold or flu. A symptom checker can help patients identify their need to take action—such as antibiotics, corticosteroids, or oxygen therapy—before they need a high-cost trip to the emergency room.

Long haul COVID-19

The cost and impacts of COVID-19 will stretch far beyond the first big waves of the pandemic. Even if vaccinations quell widespread infection, long haulers will struggle with symptoms like tiredness, muscle aches, and trouble thinking clearly. They’ll need help navigating the fog of symptoms and figuring out what warrants a trip to the doctor. A symptom checker can provide the guidance required while avoiding trips to the emergency department. It can also redirect patients to telemedicine—which dramatically lowers costs.

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How symptom checkers manage the cost of healthcare delivery

There are many factors contributing to the challenge of diagnosing and monitoring patients with chronic diseases. Fortunately, symptom checkers leveraging intelligent technologies are well-poised to sift through the complexity and enable patients to take full advantage of self-assessment tools. Here’s how.

Empowers patients to take control of self-assessment

Symptom checkers can provide the nudge a patient needs to take action before their condition deteriorates further.

Leverages the power of data

Symptom checkers can make sense of complex symptom patterns and come up with a diagnosis. Doing so allows healthcare systems to increase their data collection volume, sophistication, and quality to provide more patients with early and effective treatment. Simply put, symptom checkers can use past data to drive future diagnoses.

Detects early deteriorations

There are clear patterns amongst healthcare costs with unscheduled care (e.g., emergency department visits and readmissions) carrying the biggest price tag. Catching diseases early allows patients to receive the care they need to treat their condition and avoid further problems.

Redirects patients to appropriate point-of-care

Symptom checkers can quickly pinpoint individuals who need to go to the emergency department right away while filtering out those who don’t and redirecting them to lower-cost care. In fact, according to an Symptomate survey, 20% of patients were directed to telemedicine instead of in-person consultations. And in a recent case study, 33% of patients who intended to see a doctor in person decided on a teleconsultation first and 37% of patients with new health problems were directed to telemedicine.

Support clinicians

A symptom checker powered by intelligent technologies is an adjunct tool that can level the playing field and stabilize staff skill sets. AI is capable of having the same information as the most experienced and skilled physician on your staff.

AI-powered symptom checkers are raising the game in the diagnosis and management of chronic conditions. While some symptom checkers require 45 questions (representing 10 to 15 minutes of a patient or clinician’s time), Infermedica involves an average of only 11 questions.

There is mounting evidence that these digital front doors are very useful in detecting complications or exacerbations of established chronic conditions. They are quickly becoming a must-have tool in preventing unnecessary use of high-cost services. At the same time, patients can experience a better quality of care—sooner.

Learn more about symptom-checking solutions for companies operating in the healthcare industry. Get in touch with our team.

A REPORT BY INFERMEDICA
Improving healthcare
with symptom checkers
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