Symcat combines aggregated data from patient health records with demographics and user symptoms to inform diagnoses over the Internet.


"Big data" is the phrase that has the high-tech and health care industries buzzing. The ability to collect and intelligently analyze patient data, from their DNA sequence to their vital signs, promises to revolutionize both the delivery of health care and understanding of the human body. Aggregating information from millions of patients may greatly accelerate population health discoveries as well as guide individual treatment decisions. This was one of the more exciting applications of IBM's Watson, but there is still a long way to go before the powerful machine is unleashed on the health care system, let alone the general public.

Symcat is a versatile and also very powerful tech solution that combines aggregated data from patient health records with user symptoms and demographics to inform diagnoses. The platform, which is already accessible online, is being developed by two medical student entrepreneurs from Johns Hopkins, Craig Monsen and David Do, and is part of the first class of Blueprint Health. This editor met up with Symcat's founders to discuss the platform and its future.

What was the inspiration for Symcat?

David and I had kicked around the idea for something like Symcat for at least a year. During hospital rotations, it was frustrating and ultimately impractical to search the medical literature for disease prevalence data, even though it can be an invaluable aid in diagnosis. At that point, we wanted to build something we could use for ourselves.

However, it was not until our emergency medicine rotation several months ago that we really saw the need for Symcat. When we started the rotation, we were quietly imagining something between ER and House. We were surprised to find just how many people were there for things like sore throat, headaches, and colds. In fact, there's data that suggests that as many as 44 percent of emergency room visits are unnecessary and can be better treated at a primary care office or urgent care center. It occurred to us that patients were not getting access to good information about when and where they should seek medical care. We believe a simple interface and intelligent algorithms could help answer this question for patients.

Who should use Symcat?

We'd like for anyone with new symptoms to turn to Symcat to inform their health care decision-making. Despite the fact that four of five people with Internet access search for health information online, the medical community has for the most part shied away from offering actionable information. There are notable exceptions like the Mayo Clinic, and HealthTap is mobilizing some physicians, but when it comes to finding out what's wrong, there is still a vacuum that media companies are more than happy to fill.

Ultimately, we're hoping to build a community around helping people find appropriate medical care. We all turn to our friends and family before we go to see the doctor. We're looking for wisdom: someone who will say, "Oh yeah, I had that. I just scheduled with my doctor and it was OK." Symcat will collect that wisdom in a structured way so that it can be easily communicated back to patients. So, another answer to the question is that we'd like everyone to participate in helping each other. Symcat just makes it easier to do that.

Can you discuss some of the technical details of how Symcat works?

Symcat is what's called an expert system. At a high level, it calculates the frequencies of symptoms and diseases from clinical data and uses that past data to inform a prediction about what could be wrong. We train the algorithm on data from doctors' offices and ER visits, where patients are typically sicker than those just searching on the Internet, but it's not a bad start. Fortunately, our algorithms can very naturally learn from additional users, so they will adapt over time.

Do you have any stories of friends or family using Symcat?

Of course! I insist that all of my family use Symcat. Actually, people who have used Symcat sometimes share their stories with us about how it has helped them. One of our users had a fever and stomach pain. Symcat told him that he was likely to have appendicitis or diverticulitis and that he should go to the emergency room. He went and he was glad that he did because he was diagnosed with diverticulitis in the ER. These stories are obviously very encouraging for us.

What are your top three goals for 2012?

Number one and two for us is to grow the community. For now that means a lot of product development, sitting down with users, and making Symcat so useful that our existing users want to share it with others. We're also exploring several partnerships as a way of making our service more useful. For example, incorporating copay prices for different levels of care (i.e. urgent care vs. emergency room) would go a long way toward giving people access to the information they need for an informed decision. Stay tuned.

This post also appears on medGadget, an Atlantic partner site.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to