A free service lets you type in your illness symptoms and learn what's ailing you — and the startup behind it has raised $69 million

Ada HealthThe Ada Health team. From left to right: pediatrician Claire Novorol, Daniel Nathrath, and neuroscientist Martin Hirsch.
  • Started by a pediatrician, Ada Health is a tool that lets you type in your symptoms and learn what’s ailing you.
  • You can also track your symptoms over time and share them with a healthcare provider.
  • The company is backed by Google’s chief business officer and the entrepreneur behind Amazon’s Alexa.

To Google or not to Google – that’s often the question when it comes to a troubling ailment like a cough or stomach pain.

But researching your symptoms online can send you down a rabbit hole that leads you to think you have a life-threatening condition. The alternative is a trip to the doctor, which can be time-consuming and expensive. Given the shortage of healthcare providers in the US, doctor’s visits can often feel hurried and unpleasant as well.

Daniel Nathrath, the CEO of Berlin-based startup Ada Health, and his co-founder and chief medical officer, Claire Novorol, have created a tool that they hope will address this problem.

The Ada Health app is designed to give better information than you’d get from Google results. Users open the free app, enter their age and gender, and type in a symptom like pain or a cough. Then a bot powered by machine learning asks several basic questions, such as how long the symptom has persisted, what makes it worse, and whether or not any related symptoms have popped up.

After a brief chat with the Ada bot, you’re brought to a screen that displays what’s probably causing your issues. The results are based on a large and growing database of hundreds of thousands of people that match your age and gender.

Nathrath and Novorol hope the tool can nip some health fears in the bud. It could also help people avoid unnecessary doctor’s visits. There’s no waiting room, no appointment, and no copay.

“This is what seeing your doctor should be like,” Nathrath told Business Insider.

Ada compares you against others in your demographic

Woman, college student, phone, campus, working, textingShutterstock

Say you’re a 31-year-old woman experiencing stomach pain, for example. Once you type in your symptoms and answer Ada’s questions, it might tell you that, based on the other 31-year-old women in the database, the vast majority who reported your symptoms were diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Then Ada may advise visiting a healthcare provider. Or if the likely cause of your symptoms is not a serious issue, the service may suggest that you rest and keep an eye on your symptoms.

“It’s like a conversation with a physician,” Nathrath said.

Ada reminds you throughout this process that it cannot diagnose or treat an illness. All it does is give you the statistical likelihood that you have a certain condition, based on the information in the database.

Still, Ada’s results are more accurate than those of sites like WebMD, which merely tell you the most likely cause of a condition based on data from the entire population.

Ada health symptom qAda Health

Ada is currently the highest ranked medical app in more than 130 countries. Roughly 45,000 cases are entered into the app’s algorithm every day, and so far, roughly 6 million patients have interacted with Ada.

Nathrath believes Ada could eventually reduce healthcare spending by helping patients avoid unnecessary doctor’s visits and saving their healthcare providers time. That’s a possibility that needs to be tested with research, but investors seem to see the platform’s potential.

Ada Health received funding from William Tunstall-Pedoe, the AI entrepreneur behind Amazon’s Alexa, as well as Google’s chief business officer Philipp Schindler. The company has raised $US69.3 million since it was founded in 2011. At that time, it was aimed at helping doctors track patients’ symptoms, but in 2016, the company pivoted to focus on patients and launched as an app in Europe. They expanded to the US last year.

“Essentially, what we’ve done is developed a medical AI that you may have an easier time talking to than to your family doctor,” Nathrath said.

Symptom checkers: The next popular primary care tool

Ada Health is not the only tool that lets users input and track their symptoms. Another so-called “symptom checker” is primary-care app K Health, which launched in New York in 2016 with funding from Box Group and Comcast Ventures.

If these services can get the science and AI right, they offer a big list of potential benefits, including reducing healthcare costs, saving time for patients and doctors, and slashing unnecessary worry. But it’s too early to say how beneficial these tools really are for doctors or patients, since the data we have on symptom checkers is quickly becoming outdated.

For a study published in the journal BMJ in 2015, researchers from Harvard Medical School reviewed 23 symptom checkers to see if they provided the correct assessment of users’ symptoms and accurate recommendations. (Neither Ada nor K Health were included since neither existed at the time.) The researchers found that the checkers were correct just over a third of the time; and their advice was determined to be the proper advice for a given condition roughly two thirds of the time.

Importantly, however, the study did not compare those findings to statistics on human physicians.

Until better data becomes available on the utility of apps like Ada Health and K Health, they can at least offer an educated assessment about what’s causing a symptom like a sore throat. Ada Health recently launched its service in two additional languages – Portuguese and Spanish – to make it accessible to even more users.

“Our biggest issue right now is serving the demand we have,” Nathrath said.

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