Please Don't Use Your iPhone To Self-Diagnose COVID-19

The coronavirus is scary for all of us. I’ve seen one too many stories this weekend about seemingly healthy, young people being hit with COVID-19 and dropping dead within a week’s time. I was even tempted to Google symptoms when I had a slight cough and a possibly stuffy nose, because health anxiety is real.

With that in mind, I encourage you not to ask Siri whether you have coronavirus or not. She can’t diagnose you, obviously, but she will now engage you in a quick Q&A to help you figure out whether you should actually go into an urgent care or emergency room—or whatever local test setup your area has to offer.

I’m not saying Siri isn’t trying to be helpful. Here are a few examples of what you might see when you summon her to help out, depending on how you answer the various prompts:

Screenshot: David Murphy
Screenshot: David Murphy
Screenshot: David Murphy
Screenshot: David Murphy
Screenshot: David Murphy

Here’s the thing. Symptoms of the coronavirus, if you’re presenting with any, should be pretty obvious—even if they might differ in some situations. If you’re generally feeling meh, but don’t feel devastated (nor do you have a more persistent and obvious symptom, like a constant, unrelenting fever and coughing), you may or may not have coronavirus. There’s no real way to assess at the moment. You’ll have to wait it out to see if you get worse, but you should not go running to the hospital at the first sign of a dry cough (presenting with nothing else).

Obviously, the equation changes if you’ve been in contact with people who have tested positive for COVID-19—get thee to a testing facility, then. And if you’re in a high-risk group (over 60, or you have some underlying health condition that would be even more problematic if you have coronavirus), you might want to err on the side of caution. Not panic, but caution.

Don’t run to the ER if it’s not an emergency, but you might want to call your healthcare provider to see what your options are (or get a second opinion). And, again, if you have more obvious symptoms like a fever and increased difficulty with breathing, you’ll want to be evaluated.

So why the Siri hate? I don’t dislike the fact that Apple is now giving you a little setup to walk through if you think you might have coronavirus. However, the existence of this option is likely to trigger a lot more anxiety if nothing else. And it’s not all that helpful. When you tell Siri you have some symptoms, but they’re not life-threatening, you’re told that, yep, those are symptoms associated with coronavirus. Hang in there, and if it gets worse, do something.

Well, duh.

If you’re truly concerned, reach for your thermometer instead of reaching for your phone. Or dial up your healthcare provider to get some advice from an actual person trained in these things. (They might be swamped, so don’t call unless you have a legitimate concern, not just a simple cough.) You can also try any local health centres or testing locations, who might be able to help out a bit more than your digital assistant.

And of course, don’t download apps that promise to give you more information about COVID-19—like tracking your neighbours, or heatmaps of breakouts, or any of that. Until this kind of a thing comes from an official source, odds are good you’re more likely to be scammed or phished than anything else.


    Any putting their trust in a mobile phone (including Apple's siri) to diagnose their health needs their head examining.

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