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

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Dr. Spooner said increased patient anxiety from Web searches has been going on for years, and in the pre-Internet days patients would come in armed with magazine articles.

Even though he sees only hospitalized patients now, he said "it's a pretty universal thing" for family members to bring in laptops and voice their concerns about possible serious conditions found on the Web. "I see it pretty much all the time," he said. "It's not a huge problem." Rather, he said, "It's a signal to the health care provider that you need to have a certain kind of conversation" with the family member, discussing what they're worried about and explaining "why I'm not worried about it."

He added, "If that's what they're worried about, that's what you should be spending your time on."

Dr. Bavishi said he probably experiences the cyberchondriac syndrome "once a week, if that much," depending on the season and other factors. More often, he said, his patients' family members consult Web sites while they're waiting for a call back from a doctor or just before a doctor's visit, a practice he encourages.

Some of the problems he pointed out with consulting the sites first, he said, are that their navigation can be confusing, their content and advice varies greatly, some vital questions may be missed, and a patient's "past and local history" isn't taken into account as it would be with a physician.

Also, "If someone were to take the advice of a symptom checker -- which again they're not supposed to -- but if they were to self-treat without the opinion of a physician, the problem is that follow-up may be missed and that can potentially turn into a problem as well."

He, of course, agreed with the sites' disclaimers that a diagnosis "is something that needs to be evaluated by a physician -- even by a phone call. A phone call to the doctor's office can actually be faster than scrolling through the symptom checkers, because we know what to look for, what questions to ask and what the concerns are."

"Bottom line for me is, nothing beats the advice of a doctor," Dr. Bavishi said. "We'd rather err on the side of you calling us to determine if the patient or the child needs to be seen."

See below for a list of many other online tools available to give you information about your hearing, weight, health habits, "real" age, mental ability, psychological soundness and much more.

I'm still worried about those. I'm off to my home computer to take that anxiety test -- if I can dodge those pesky catfish.

This story, "The Doctor is ... YOU! Online Medical Symptom Checkers Examined" was originally published by Computerworld.

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