Health & Family

Online diagnosis? It’s often wrong

Ever asked the Internet what your symptoms mean and gotten a response that seemed wacky or totally off base? It’s not your imagination.

In an audit that is believed to be the first of its kind, Harvard Medical School researchers have tested 23 online “symptom checkers” – run by brand names such as the Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Pediatrics and WebMD, as well as lesser-knowns such as Symptomate – and found that, though the programs varied widely in accuracy of diagnoses and triage advice, as a whole they were astonishingly inaccurate. Symptom checkers provided the correct diagnosis first in only 34 percent of cases, and within the first three diagnoses 51 percent of the time.

“Our results imply that in many cases symptom checkers can give the user a sense of possible diagnoses but also provide a note of caution, as the tools are frequently wrong and the triage advice overly cautious,” Hannah Semigran and Ateev Mehrota, researchers in health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School, and their co-authors wrote in the study. Washington Post

Planning ahead at the sperm bank

Kevin Smith, a doctor from Britain’s Abertay University, writes in the Journal of Medical Ethics that sperm-banking should “become the norm” and that this should ideally be done at around age 18. Smith points out that the average age of fatherhood is rising and, with that, the risk of errors in the sperm that could lead the men to pass down genetic diseases to their offspring.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the average age of fathers has gone from 31 in the 1990s to 33 now. “It’s time we took seriously the issue of paternal age and its effect on the next generation of children,” he told the BBC.

(In the United States, census bureau numbers show the average age of fatherhood rose from 25.3 in 1987/88 to 27.4 in 2006/2010.)

Smith’s commentary has triggered strong reaction – ranging from soul-searching to derision – from those taking time to ponder the issue. In the British press, Allan Pacey, a University of Sheffield professor who focuses on male health, decried the idea as “simply crackers.”

Smith’s concerns are not unfounded, however. In recent years a number of studies have found links between delayed fatherhood and a risk of autism, schizophrenia and other conditions in their sons and daughters. Washington Post

What they’re writing

Alison Bowen of the Chicago Tribune, on the dangers of margaritas:

Be careful if you’re squeezing a lime into a drink by the pool. Lime juice, or juice from other drink adornments like lemons and celery, can mix with the sun to create painful blisters and burns.

Dermatologists say they often see patients in the spring and summer who have been mixing drinks outside. For example, some had lime juice on their palms after making margaritas, then sat in the sun without washing their hands.

“It is very painful because it’s like a burn,” said Dr. Larisa Geskin, associate professor of dermatology at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York. “Instead of burning yourself with the oil that splashes from your pan, it’s basically a chemical reaction.”

The condition, called phytophotodermatitis, is also called “margarita dermatitis,” Geskin added.