As India sees a rise in the number of coronavirus positive cases, the government has taken strict actions, including quarantining entire country's population into homes. While everything shuts down, there is a proliferation of apps and tools that claim to tell whether you have the covid-19 infection or not. This they claim to do on the basis of answers that people give in response to a quiz-like method to identify coronavirus infection.
We are talking about the coronavirus symptoms checking tools that have sprung up rapidly to assure people that they can determine if they have contracted the virus or are potentially infected. The manufacturers of these tools claim they have followed the guidelines laid down by WHO and local medical authorities. The person just has to tell the app or covid-19 symptom checking web service a few details of his health and a bit of travel history. In return, the covid-19 symptom checker will tell whether you are ill with it or not.
Over the past few days, during the lockdown especially, corporates such as Reliance Jio, Microsoft, Apollo Hospitals, Medius Health, and more have launched their respective tools for the general public to let them take a preliminary test for the verification of disease contraction. These tools are predefined with a set of questions that are basic in nature initially but move on to inquiring about the personal details of the person taking the test.
And that is a big problem, making these covid-19 symptoms checkers useless. This is a completely new disease. Doctors are still debating the symptoms that it shows. In fact, they are even debating how long a person infected by covid-19 remains asymptomatic and how long the symptoms persist. This identifying covid-19 is right now such a tricky proposition that there are many false negatives even with the regular PCR tests. There have been cases of someone testing negative for covid-19 in one test and then testing positive in another test just hours later.
Yet, the online tools claim to tell people whether they have caught coronavirus infection or not.
These tools ask the person's sex, age, nationality, travel history, symptoms, and other questions deemed important by the creator. While these questions are important for analysing the impact or severity of a symptom, they are not specific to every person. Irrespective of the age, sex, and symptoms, the immunity level of each individual varies. And then there are other biological factors that determine a person's ability to catch a disease, particularly flu. The symptoms for Covid-19 are nearly similar to the common flu, which can be challenging for the tools to tell apart. The vagueness in the complaints registered on the tools could belong to the common flu instead of the Covid-19. Only a laboratory test will help in providing an accurate test of what the underlying problem is.
Moreover, the vagueness in the questions may cause someone to unnecessarily panic and rush to the nearest testing centre. While it may be justified on the concerned person's part, it is not feasible for medical facilities to prioritise someone who is scared he may have caught coronavirus on the basis of an online test. According to a study conducted by researchers at the Harvard Medical School in 2015, it was found that the online symptom checkers are only 51 per cent accurate in determining the ailment.
Even if we fathom the accuracy that is just 1 per cent away from being dicey, the online symptom checkers do not always advise people correctly on what they should do. Most answers in the report generated by these tools tell people to consult with a doctor -- which is something that can be done without needing the checker at all.
This is not to say the symptoms checking tools are totally useless. They can be useful in other ways -- like telling people what the general covid-19 symptoms are. Or telling people the best practices on how to avoid infection. Use them to get this general information, but don't use that covid-19 symptom checker app to figure out if you are ill or not.