WAFF 48 Investigates: Online symptom checkers - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

WAFF 48 Investigates: Online symptom checkers

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Medical professionals are devising their own online resources to combat potential dangers of everyday sites. Medical professionals are devising their own online resources to combat potential dangers of everyday sites.

When Beth Feldman woke up with a red, swollen eyelid, her first thought was to call the doctor. But when she couldn't get an appointment right away, she decided to do a little symptom searching online.

"It's good to just look and see if it's not too serious," said Feldman. "I'm going to see if I can just take care of this at home."

Once upon a time, physicians worried about patients playing doctor, concerned they might jump to the wrong diagnosis.

"When you go online to self diagnose, you're going to websites and using your limited medical knowledge to look at a big list of differential diagnoses," said Dr. Dan Feiten, a pediatrician. "And you're immediately going to go to the worst possible situations."

But now, many are having a change of heart, thanks to new symptom checkers. They are created by the medical community itself and integrated into doctor and hospital websites. Feiten's pediatric practice has one.

"Parents go online to our website to find out whether a) they need to make an appointment or b) what do they do in the meantime, or c) do they need to go the emergency department," said Feiten.

Proponents say these new symptom checkers can cut down on office calls and unnecessary trips to the emergency room, as well as save people money on co-pays.

"It gives you peace of mind about knowing what to do," said Jane Thompson, a mother of four. "Because you have something that's told you everybody else has this and don't worry about it. Come in in three days."

Dr. Barton Schmitt, Medical Director of the Pediatric Call Center at Children's Hospital in Colorado, designed the symptom checker. It's been adopted by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It won't give you a long list of scary possibilities, but it will help you determine what to do next. 

"It's based on the medical literature," said Dr. Schmitt. "It's based on national guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, other organizations. It's based on reviews by over a hundred expert reviewers."

But not all medical websites are created equal, according to Christine Laine, Senior Vice President of the American College of Physicians. It's also important to check the source before taking any advice.

"Professional organizations like the American College of Physicians or reputable patient and consumer groups should generally be trusted more than information that's coming from an organization that the patient has never heard of," said Dr. Laine.

And even the most reputable resources can't always replace a doctor's personal touch.

"The symptom checkers can't put the information in the context of the patient and their lives," said Dr. Laine. "They can't look at how sick the patient is."

Beth Feldman was able to conclude that her eye didn't warrant a trip to the doctor, and she plans to consult the experts online in the future.

"If there are any red flags when I'm reading the information, I'm calling the doctor, " said Feldman.

Check out some of these checkers yourself:

 

 

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