Forum Focus – Med students develop app that analyzes symptoms, suggests next steps

This article first appeared on Wing of Zock ( on July 10, 2012.

By Sarah Sonies

Have you ever felt poorly, given in to the temptation to research your symptoms online, and pulled up a list of absolutely terrifying possible diagnoses? Many of us do it all too often, sometimes scaring ourselves into emergency room visits for ailments that are minor and easily treated.

The Internet is not meant to replace medical professionals, but as it can engender cyberchondria, it can also battle it. And yes, there’s an app for that. Symcat is a mobile and Web app that uses data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to analyze patients’ symptoms mean and suggest next steps. Invented and developed by two fourth-year medical students at John Hopkins University Medical School, Symcat was the top prize winner in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Aligning Forces for Quality Developer Challenge at the third annual Health Data Initiative Forum (aka “Health Datapalooza”) on June 5 in Washington, DC.

David Do and Craig Monsen are students behind this innovation. Wing of Zock associate editor Sarah Sonies sat down with Monsen at the event for a brief Q&A about the development of Symcat.

Where did the idea for Symcat come from?

Monsen: David and I both have engineering backgrounds, with some computer science knowledge as well. We actually first met in our first year of medical school in anatomy lab, and we bonded over designing projects that applied technology to medicine. We really thought that medicine should be more technical, so we started working on some HIT-related projects together.

Our first projects were kind of silly and not even health-related, but eventually we got into apps more relevant to health. The idea for Symcat is not particularly novel: applying artificial intelligence to diagnosis. I think my mom could have come up with that idea. However, what really made us pursue this concept and the project itself was working in the emergency room for our ER rotation at Hopkins. We saw how many people were there for minor things because they didn’t know that other options were available to them. We firmly believe that informing people to get them to the point where they feel more comfortable making their own medical decisions is the best way to help them choose what is best for them medically.

What type of feedback have you both gotten on Symcat?

Monsen: In the beginning, we weren’t sure if we were going to actually start a business or just use Symcat for academic purposes. We went around to various professors and colleagues at Hopkins, as well as other people in our network, and asked them what they thought we could do with Symcat. Ultimately, we decided that there was a great opportunity to commercialize it.

People are really excited about our approach of using medicine in technology. They seem to be most excited about the potential for what the app can bring about, which is getting people to the right care at the right time. The business people and the academics we have spoken with agree that an app like this needs to exist. We are trying to stay true to our academic roots, but we believe that commercialization and starting a business with this is the best way to translate good research and good work into something people can use and benefit from.

Where do you hope to see this app go in the future?

Monsen: There are many resources available to people for health care right now, from Google to medical providers, but people don’t know the best place to find the quickest way to treat their symptoms. We would like to become a harness for that and help people further understand the whole universe of health care options. We would really like to be able to create a community around helping people address these acute questions: What is wrong with me, and what should I do about it?

Our end goal is to continue to find the best way to quantify those questions and put the information into a resource that people can access immediately.

What does winning the RJWF Challenge mean to you?

We are really passionate about HIT. It has really been a great opportunity for me and my colleagues to learn more about HIT overall and find out where we want to make an impact in health and medicine.

Craig Monsen is a 4th year medical student at Johns Hopkins where he serves as the president of the student body. He graduated from Harvard with Highest Honors in Engineering and Computer Science in 2008.

David Do is a 4th year medical student at Johns Hopkins. He graduated from the University of Minnesota with Highest Honors in Bioengineering in 2008. You can read more about Symcat and the Symcat team here.