Buoy for What Ails You: A More Reliable Online Symptom Checker

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Google searches, online symptom checkers, and internet forums are famous for spitting out wrong diagnoses and inciting unnecessary anxiety. Yet we use these tools in search of answers because they’re a lot quicker, easier, and cheaper than heading to urgent care or seeing your doc, especially since you’ll likely be told just to go home and rest anyway.

We've finally found a more reliable source of medical advice to turn to. Buoy, an online symptom assessor just launched as an iPhone app leverages artificial intelligence to re-create a face-to-face conversation with a physician. You key in your symptoms, Buoy asks questions from a pool of 30,000, and then based on your responses, it intelligently decides the next most important questions to ask.

You keep going like this, and after each question, Buoy shows you the number of possible diagnoses represented as dots. Following each successive question, you see how many dots were dropped (i.e., conditions were ruled out) until Buoy arrives at your top three most likely diagnoses. Then you get a detailed explanation of the diagnoses, how each relates to your symptoms, and what you should do about it. It’s all very straightforward and easy, and the whole thing takes two or three minutes tops.

“Buoy provides very nuanced suggestions, such as go to the ER now, go in the morning, dial a nurse call line, schedule a telemedicine appointment, or treat on your own,” says Dr. Andrew Le, co-founder and CEO of Buoy, who developed the program at Harvard Innovation Lab with the input of other doctors. “There is so much burden on patients to decide what to do when they’re sick or injured, and so many people have high-deductible insurance plans. We want to help you make safer decisions than you could after reading some online forum.”

How accurate it Buoy? Le and his team had 500 patients in an urgent care waiting room test out the tool right before seeing a doctor. Compared with what the physicians diagnosed, Buoy was spot-on 90.9 percent of time. “We’ve since done follow-up studies to test Buoy against old-guard symptom checkers like WebMD, Healthline, and the Mayo Clinic,” Le says. “In our most recent, we compared these tools against 100 cough cases examined by doctors. Buoy had 92 percent diagnostic accuracy and 98 percent triage accuracy, which means we’re sending people to the right place for care. The next closest competitor was WebMD, which came in at 56 percent for diagnostic accuracy.”

We put Buoy to test as well. A few days prior, after returning home from an hour-long gym session, I felt a nagging pain in my lower back. Figuring I’d pulled a muscle while lifting, I asked my husband to massage it. Bad idea. Suddenly the pain radiated outward, shot in a straight line down the back of my right leg, and made the bottom of foot tingle and my big toe feel numb. I couldn’t walk for the rest of the evening and figured I’d be heading to urgent care the next morning. But then when I woke up, I felt zero pain or tingling.

I had a sneaking suspicion this had been my sciatic nerve acting up, but the pain was gone, so I tried out Buoy. It took next to no time to cycle through all the questions, and I was impressed with their level of detail and the body maps that allowed me to pinpoint my pain spots. Sure enough, my most likely diagnosis was sciatica. Good news: I can treat this at home with heat, ice, and Advil, and didn't have to skip my workout. 

For comparison’s sake, I also entered my symptoms into WebMD Symptom Checker. This tool asked me six questions, all quite general, and suggested I had a herniated disk, osteoporosis, or cauda equina syndrome (huh?). Of course, I haven’t actually seen a doctor, so it could turn out that Buoy is wrong and I really do have something more serious. But based on Buoy’s numerous detailed questions, interactive qualities, and total-package experience, the fact that its diagnosis jives perfectly with how my body feels — and the fact that the most serious symptoms haven't recurred — I’m trusting Buoy's call for now.

Another great feature is that Buoy keeps track of your injuries and ailments, amassing your complete profile every time you use it. “Buoy remembers you in between flare-ups and ailments,” Le says. “If you’re have one ankle sprain, you’re more likely to have second sprain, and all this information is integrated into your profile. The ninth time you use Buoy will be better than the eight time, which will be better than the seventh time, and so on.” Le notes another feature that lets Buoy check in on you to see how your symptoms develop over time. “It’s a lot like a doctor following up and asking how you’re feeling,” he says.

Obviously, no doctor-bot is perfect, and sometimes there’s no substitute for real-deal medical attention. Try it out at buoyhealth.com.