Patient, diagnose thyself

Can an app a day keep the doctor away?

Are we getting to the point when a visit to the clinic will be a rare occurrence? When instead we can simply plug a bunch of info into our phone to find out that, yes, we are in need of immediate medical attention, or no, we are not?

After all, IBM is working on a version of its Watson program — the same program that beat Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings by roughly $50,000 — to act as a diagnostic tool.

And hospitals, Providence included, are encouraging patients to use the iTriage app. That app was designed by two emergency room doctors. Patients enter in symptoms and find out if they need to call an ambulance immediately or head for the waiting room.

While computer science and medicine share one major goal — to quickly and accurately respond to a person’s needs — patients should still be wary of putting too much faith in the power of their iPads, at least for now.

Let’s dwell for a second on what these advances may mean to the health-care field, a sector of our economy that gobbles up roughly $2.7 trillion every year, representing about one sixth of the nation’s GDP.

A huge chunk of medical costs are due to expensive treatments: prescription drugs, chemotherapy, heart catheterizations and so on. An app can’t clear a blocked artery or shrink a tumor, obviously.

What computers are doing is helping doctors figure out what’s ailing a patient.

Earlier this month, the New York Times profiled Dr. Gurpreet Dhaliwal, a master diagnostician. Dhaliwal, a genius at picking up on the subtle clues that allow an illness to be identified, sometimes uses a computer program named Isabel to make sure he doesn’t overlook anything. He encourages other doctors to use such tools.

Diagnostic programs are becoming more common. While they can’t replace a physician’s treatments, they can speed the healing process.

It’s not unusual, after all, for a person to sit in a hospital bed for a couple days with some unknown ailment. Better diagnostic tools can reduce that time, leading to faster treatment, better care and, ultimately, less time spent eating hospital food.

And that means less money spent on medical care.

Admittedly, there is a danger in these advances, particularly as they become commonplace. People should use tools like iTriage to gain an understanding of what might be going wrong, but shouldn’t entrust their health care to their phones.

The day may come when health care no longer needs master diagnosticians, when computers can synthesize data fast enough to zero in on an illness, and doctors then treat it. But for now, the human touch hasn’t been replaced.