Symcat uses data to battle ‘cyberchondria’

Next time you look to the Web for health information, you might want to think twice before asking Dr. Google.
“He’s not a very good doctor,” said Symcat Co-founder Craig Monsen, at The Health Datapalooza in Washington, D.C. Tuesday. “He thinks your back pain is either tuberculosis, malaria or metastatic breast cancer.”
According to The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, four in five Internet users look for health information online. But, as Monsen and others point out, they inevitably face a flood of information that’s irrelevant, untrustworthy or confusing.
To fight the rising tide of “cyberchondria,” Monsen and his co-founder David Do (both of whom are medical students on leave from Johns Hopkins) launched Symcat. It’s a mobile and Web app that analyzes patient symptoms as well as disease prevalence data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other public sources, with the goal of helping patients figure out what their symptoms mean and what they can do about them.
Along with Meddik, another health information startup we’ve covered, it was one of the first startups to graduate from New York-based health tech incubator Blueprint Health in the spring.
On Tuesday, Symcat won $100,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for taking the top prize in a data-focused developer challenge.
When users head to Symcat’s app (or website) and type in their symptoms, the startup’s algorithms use CDC data to rank results by the likelihood of the different conditions. It then allows users to further filter results by typing in information such as their gender, the duration of their symptoms and medical history. Along the way, users can always click on results to read more information provided by credible sources such as the National Library of Medicine and Medline.
In addition to generating a list of the most likely conditions, Symcat also asks a set of questions a doctor might ask to identify red flags. If one is raised, the site will suggest emergency care, as well as provide nearby facilities, potential costs and turn-by-turn directions. If emergency care isn’t needed, Symcat supplies a list of relevant of solutions, including professional options and self-care.
Other sites, including Meddik, PatientsLikeMe, HealthLine and WebMD, also aim to give patients relevant healthcare. But Symcat takes a primarily data-driven approach to help patients from diagnosis to treatment. 
“The data are out there,” said Monsen. “You just need to be a little crafty to stitch them all together.”