Choosing the best symptom tracker in 2023

Published on December 30th 2022.
Written by Jenna Farmer.

With an estimated 133 million Americans suffering from long-term health problems, many of us are dealing with daily health symptoms that we’d like to keep a closer eye on. Some people use symptom trackers as a way to help them get to know their body better and others as a way to share more detailed symptom info with their Doctor. Whatever the reason, keeping track of your symptoms can have a number of benefits. Using a symptom tracker in 2023 is a simple health resolution you can make this year, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. So whether you’re looking for a simple symptom log or a way to pinpoint symptom triggers, here’s our guide to choosing the best symptom tracker for you.

Photo by Surface on Unsplash

What is a symptom tracker?

A symptom tracker is a tool that helps you to keep a close eye on the symptoms and health conditions that you’re experiencing. Symptom trackers can be used daily to help get a detailed overview of changes in your health, help you to predict potential flare-ups, or even just keep track of acute symptoms when they occur. Some symptom trackers can also help you to monitor positive and negative trends in your symptoms, help you to track both objective (e.g. heart rate & steps) and subjective (e.g. fatigue level and emotions) health markers, and can be used as a symptom journal to facilitate more in-depth conversations with a Doctor or Therapist.

What are the different types of symptom trackers?

There are a couple of different types of symptom trackers that you can use. 

Pen & paper symptom trackers.

First of all, the good old-fashioned way is simply putting pen to paper! Some people prefer to do this with the same prompts each day (e.g. logging their level of pain on a scale of 1-10) whilst others prefer a diary format that allows them more freedom to jot down how they’re feeling. This is a great excuse to splash out on a new notebook (who doesn’t love stationary?) but does have the disadvantage that it can quickly get disorganised, especially if you misplace the notebook. This is why many people rely on technology to track their symptoms instead.

Digital symptom trackers.

These can include anything from creating your own document on a computer (you can even make a colour-coordinated spreadsheet) or using an app on your mobile phone. The benefit of a digital symptom tracker is that it allows you to have a clearer long-term picture of your health. For example, you can quickly view symptom trends and many platforms make it easy for you to analyse symptom trends and correlations. Digital symptom trackers or symptom apps may also be more easily shared and the data more easily interpreted by a medical professional.

What are the benefits of symptom trackers

Using any kind of symptom tracker has a range of benefits. The biggest one is that it allows you to pay closer attention to your health, which may help you access support sooner. This is especially important if you have a long-term condition. Many people who do, are more likely to use symptom trackers. Symptom tracking consistently can even allow you to spot patterns, potentially predict future flare-ups, or pinpoint symptom triggers. All of these can help you feel more in control of your health.

Symptom tracking can be beneficial in aiding communicating with others too, including your GP. 34% of those who use symptom trackers share their info with others, and over half of these share it with their GP. This is because it allows you to present information about your health clearly and ensures you don’t forget to miss any important symptoms. This can also save time at appointments as all your information is there for your medical professional to quickly access without having to ask you lots of questions. This can be especially helpful for people that live with the ‘brain fog’ that is symptomatic of many chronic physical and mental health conditions.

Research has found that symptom trackers allow us to feel more confident in sharing information with our doctors, which can be key to getting a diagnosis and accessing the right support. In 2018, 39% of British people were worried about sharing information but this recently fell to just 15% thanks to the increase in symptom-tracking apps. Having the information in one place may also help conversations with loved ones too as it can help give them a clearer picture of how you’re feeling.

For many, symptom tracking changes how they view their health. 46% of trackers say using symptom trackers has changed their approach to health with 63% agreeing it has had a significant impact on how they live with a chronic illness.

How to choose the right symptom tracker for you

The right type of symptom tracker will depend on your own individual needs. Firstly, it may depend on your health itself. If you are tracking one simple symptom, you may find a notebook is all you need. However, if you are tracking multiple symptoms and are looking for real insights into these, then using a digital symptom tracker or symptom tracker app could be a better idea. 

It’s also worth considering when and where you’re likely to be symptom tracking. If you want to track ‘in real time’ then using your mobile phone is the best idea, as a notebook or laptop may not always be within reach. However, if it’s something you plan to do each evening, then using a pen-and-paper symptom journal could be integrated into your evening routine.

Thinking about how you want to use the data is also key. If you plan to share it with medical professionals, then using an app that makes sharing your symptoms data easy could be crucial.

What should I look for in a symptom-tracking app?

If you’re looking for a symptom-tracking app, then there are several things to look out for. 

Privacy & Security.

Firstly, let’s talk about privacy. Digital symptom trackers that can be locked with a pin code or password are potentially more secure than a pen-and-paper symptom tracker. However, If you’re thinking of using a symptom-tracking app, you want to make sure that your data is as private and secure as possible. 

Both the Apple App Store and Android Play Store make it easy to review the measures taken by an app to keep your data private and secure. These measures include an explanation of:

    • What data is being collected
    • What data is being shared
    • Why this data is being collected
    • Whether collecting the data is optional
    • The security practices of the App

Some important things to look out for are:

    • Can your data be deleted?
    • How much Personally Identifiable Data (PII) is being collected and for what reason?
    • Is your data encrypted?

If you’re unsure about the privacy and security of your health data it could also be helpful to read the Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy or you could even contact the developers directly. 

Note. If you live in the US and are concerned about details of your reproductive health being shared with law enforcement officials, you can look for apps that are based outside of the US and that fall outside of the jurisdiction of the US legal system.

Customisable & Personalisable.

If you’re interested in symptom tracking, it’s likely that you have a number of very specific symptoms that you need to keep track of. This makes it important that the solution you use isn’t too restrictive and allows you to customise what you track in as much or as little detail as you need. 

Whilst this could be an argument in favour of pen-and-paper symptom tracking, there are a number of symptom tracker apps that allow you to customise how you track your symptoms in plenty of detail. So when you’re next assessing digital symptom tracking solutions, you might want to consider if the symptom tracker allows you to measure:

    • Severity level of the symptom
    • The type of symptom
    • Location of the symptom
    • Time & date of the symptom
    • Detailed notes about the symptom 
    • The impact of the symptom on your well-being (e.g. Mood, Emotions, Sleep, Energy, Stress, etc.

Finding solutions that let you track your symptoms in a way that best represents how you experience them can be important. This is especially true if you want to share very detailed symptom information with a medical professional.

Credibility.

As there are so many symptom-tracking options available, so it’s important to find a way to distinguish between them all. One of the best ways to determine which option is right for you is to read other people’s testimonials and reviews. Looking for in-depth reviews where a person has taken the time to provide a fair and balanced overview of their experience is a good place to start. Specifically looking for reviews written by people with your health condition(s) can be helpful too. 

Beyond reading user reviews, you can also look for information about whether the symptom tracker has been clinically reviewed or tested in an empirical study. This will help you to understand if the claims made by the symptom tracker are supported by scientific research.

Another handy measure of credibility is whether or not the symptom tracker has been recommended by health organisations or recognisable publications. However, we suggest that you read the articles in which the symptom tracker is recommended to ensure that you have a full understanding of why it was recommended.

Insights & Reports.

One of the unique benefits of digital symptom tracking, many of the options can help you to identify:

    • Symptom trends so you can take preventative steps to delay or prevent flare-ups.
    • Correlations between your habits & treatment and changes in your symptoms.
    • Average frequency and severity of your symptoms.
    • The relationship between different symptoms.
    • The potential impact of different habits & treatments on all of your symptoms. 
    • Daily, Weekly, Monthly, and Yearly changes in symptoms.

If you’re seeking a symptom tracker to help you with managing your symptoms or if you’re in the process of obtaining a diagnosis, these types of insights can be especially helpful.

Ultimately, if you’re looking to have more control over your symptoms or a clearer understanding of why and when they occur, symptom trackers with reporting features may be the right option for you.

When do medical professionals recommend using a symptom tracker?

Many medical professionals find symptom trackers helpful. For example, using apps that record symptoms have been reported to help streamline healthcare professionals’ workload and help them get support more quickly.

“I recommend using an app like Bearable to clients to track the correlation between their symptoms (pain, IBS, migraines and insomnia) with stress, anxiety, any major life events or other changes in their lives. It helps them see how stress impacts their pain symptoms and by learning to manage stress differently, I find their symptoms improve. I also recommend they use an app they can customise as some of my clients have unusual symptoms that aren’t often listed on other trackers. So I recommend Bearable because it has the option to add your own symptoms,” says Psychotherapist Tina Wright.

What do users want from a symptom tracker?

Many users report that a symptom tracker that’s quick and easy to use is top of their list. “I like to use apps that make it really easy to track my symptoms. Features that allow me to give ratings by stars or symptoms via tick boxes make it really quick and easy. It allows me to fill in without having to think too much about it,” says Lucy, who has Crohn’s disease.

For others, being able to see the bigger picture is crucial if they have a long-term condition. “I use an app that allows me to have a check-in space for each day but with the option to view for a week/month to allow me to see the bigger picture,” says another patient.

Patients with multiple chronic conditions often want a symptom tracker that gives them space to make notes and customise their reporting. “I use one app to track my endometriosis but another to track my migraines. I like to use an app that can also help me know when I’ve taken my meds and then make notes for my career to see and report any side effects. I also use a spreadsheet to keep a diary of migraines,” says Lauren Perry, who runs a blog about living with chronic illness and disability.

A summary of what to consider when choosing a symptom tracker?

    • Consider your preferred method: paper, laptop or phone? This will depend on when you plan to track your symptoms, the level of privacy you’re seeking, and whether you want insights and reports about your symptoms.

    • Consider the purpose of your symptom tracking: are you tracking for personal interest, to keep an up-to-date medical record, to manage your day-to-day well-being, or to share information with a medical professional?

    • Consider how you want your data to be handled. If you’re using a digital solution to track your symptoms, always ensure your data is private and secure and that the solution can show evidence that it’s credible and effective.

    • Consider who’s recommending the symptom tracker. Has it been medically reviewed or empirically tested? Are there any recognisable organisations that recommend the symptom tracker? What do the users of the symptom tracker say about how it helps them with their goals and symptoms?

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Consult a medical professional or healthcare provider if you’re seeking medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment.