Flip No. 14

Cut down on unnecessary patient visits

Use big data to decide whether or not patients should come into the clinic.

By Flip the Clinic

An overwhelming number of patients visit the emergency room each year for conditions that could have been handled elsewhere. These unnecessary visits cost $14 billion annually. Part of the problem is that it’s hard for patients to know how serious their condition is or how to treat it without an expert opinion.

A web and app-based symptom checker, called Symcat, hopes to help cut the overuse by guiding patients to the emergency room, clinic, or bed, depending on their answers to a series of questions.

Pulling from 60 million patient records, Symcat calculates symptom-disease frequencies and then squares them against a patient’s symptoms, demographic profile, and medical history. The whole process takes less than 60 seconds. The result is a list of possible conditions, ranked by likelihood. Based on the outcome, a “find care” button makes recommendations about what kind of treatment to seek (if any) and then links patients to an appointment scheduling service. In 2012, Symcat won the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Aligning Forces for Quality $100,000 Developer Challenge.

Symcat founder Craig Monsen, who attended medical school at Johns Hopkins, believes big data can make a big difference in the clinic. And its uses, he believes, go beyond just whether or not patients should come in for a visit. Health care providers have long been the gatekeepers to treatment, diagnosis, and medical specialists. Symcat, says Monsen, can help give patients more decision-making power. Patients choose care for themselves using both Symcat and their care provider as consultants. Providers, meanwhile, get fewer superfluous visits and could be better informed about a patient’s symptom history when they do come into the clinic.

Here are four ways that a robust symptom checker like Symcat might be used in the clinic to cut down on unnecessary costs and streamline the patient-provider interaction.

1. Learn about a patient’s detailed symptom history before a visit.
With a bit of information in advance, the clinic can prepare the appropriate exam room ahead of time.

2. Check medication interaction.
When a new prescription is written, Symcat will check to make sure that all the patient’s medications play well together. If no negative interaction is found, the new medication list is automatically pushed to the electronic medical record.

3. Know when to follow up.
If a patient is sick but opts to stay home based on Symcat’s recommendation, the patient can send their symptom information to their physician, who will follow up in a few days.

4. Stay on top of disease risk.
Patients can opt to send their heart disease risk calculator scores (more disease risk calculations, for conditions like kidney disease, diabetes, and cancer, are forthcoming) to their health care provider. The next time the patient goes to the clinic, the physician can follow up on the score.