The Doctor is ... YOU! Online Medical Symptom Checkers Examined

Dr. Beaty's take: She found MayoClinic.com to present fewer symptoms, but compared to WebMD "it was very similar in that you couldn't narrow down the scope at all, so I'm just not sure how helpful that would be to someone even with a common problem."

She thought both WebMD and MayoClinic.com let her navigate through the process well. But she was disappointed in both sites when she entered general leg pain as a symptom and neither site had prompts "to find out whether you had a deep venous thrombosis, which is something very significant with leg pain."

One feature that Dr. Beaty liked on the MayoClinic.com site was that after offering up a possible diagnosis, such as cystitis, "it listed the symptoms so you could go through at that point to see which one best fit you even if the symptom checker didn't get you to the place you wanted to get."

She was amused when she couldn't figure out how to specify female symptoms, "so it gave me prostitis. I thought that was kind of interesting."

Dr. Spooner's take: MayoClinic.com "offers a slightly more limited ability to combine symptoms, but has an excellent library of material with a strong pediatric section."

He said the lack of flexibility in adding symptoms "locks you into a path. They set up some guardrails -- here are the features you should focus on." There "weren't a lot of choices" offered after entering the initial symptom, he said; although those offered "were some logical choices" that worked fine sometimes, in other cases a regular Web search would provide more information if a user searched for two different symptoms.

About.com

symptomchecker.about.com

My take: Like most of the other symptom checkers I looked at, About.com features an interactive human body map. The site tries to be all chummy and personal, stating, "We're sorry to hear you have foot pain!" and asking for forgiveness when it has to ask personal questions such as age and weight.

About.com symptom checker
It took me several tries through About.com's symptom checker to find the correct condition from a list of possibilities.
Because of confusing questions, I had to go through decision tree several times. Once I figured out the right responses, it took me seven questions to narrow down the probable cause to three conditions. Two of the three possible conditions matched WebMD's list, with plantar fasciitis listed at No 1.

The key was asking if I experienced pain after getting up in the morning and starting to walk around, after which the pain decreased greatly. That's a classic symptom of plantar fasciitis. None of the other sites I investigated asked this crucial question.

The site then offered the usual specific pages on symptoms, diagnosis, prevention, treatment and so on.

Dr. Beaty's take: "I did not like that one at all." She found that she couldn't even enter leg pain as an option. She could only enter ankle pain, "and it led you straight to strains, so it didn't get enough information and it didn't give you enough information. If you clicked on the pelvis area there, you couldn't even find urinary symptoms, so I thought it was just poorly designed and not helpful at all."

Dr. Spooner's take: He thought About.com allowed some combinations of symptoms, but it was more valuable as a "database of articles" rather than a tool to present a small number of possible causes through the decision tree.

"It's pretty much just a straightforward library of articles of high quality, with not a lot of ways to combine symptoms," he said. If he was worried about a complex set of symptoms that presented a whole picture, "this [site] wouldn't help me much." As far as content, however, he said "it's got great stuff" provided by Harvard Medical School.

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