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How suitable are clinical vignettes for the evaluation of symptom checker apps? A test theoretical perspective

Kopka, Marvin; Feufel, Markus A.; Berner, Eta S.; Schmieding, Malte L.

Objective: To evaluate the ability of case vignettes to assess the performance of symptom checker applications and to suggest refinements to the methodology used in case vignette-based audit studies. Methods: We re-analyzed the publicly available data of two prominent case vignette-based symptom checker audit studies by calculating common metrics of test theory. Furthermore, we developed a new metric, the Capability Comparison Score (CCS), which compares symptom checker capability while controlling for the difficulty of the set of cases each symptom checker evaluated. We then scrutinized whether applying test theory and the CCS altered the performance ranking of the investigated symptom checkers. Results: In both studies, most symptom checkers changed their rank order when adjusting the triage capability for item difficulty (ID) with the CCS. The previously reported triage accuracies commonly overestimated the capability of symptom checkers because they did not account for the fact that symptom checkers tend to selectively appraise easier cases (i.e., with high ID values). Also, many case vignettes in both studies showed insufficient (very low and even negative) values of item-total correlation (ITC), suggesting that individual items or the composition of item sets are of low quality. Conclusions: A test–theoretic perspective helps identify previously undetected threats to the validity of case vignette-based symptom checker assessments and provides guidance and specific metrics to improve the quality of case vignettes, in particular by controlling for the difficulty of the vignettes an app was (not) able to evaluate correctly. Such measures might prove more meaningful than accuracy alone for the competitive assessment of symptom checkers. Our approach helps elaborate and standardize the methodology used for appraising symptom checker capability, which, ultimately, may yield more reliable results.
Published in: Digital health, 10.1177/20552076231194929, SAGE