Web surfing your sickness symptoms

Medical community creating online symptom checkers


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, I'm going to see if I can just take care of this at home," she said.

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 and you're immediately going to go to the worst possible situations," said Pediatrician Dr. Dan Feiten.

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

He explained, "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?"

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. Because you have something that's told you everybody else has this and don't worry about it, come in in three days," said Jane Thompson, a mother of four.

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

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

But not all medical websites are created equal, says Christine Laine, Senior Vice President of the American College of Physicans, and it's important people 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," she said.

Laine adds that 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, they can't look at how sick the patient is," she said.

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

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

Doctors also suggest you look for online information that comes from an impartial source. Stay clear of websites that have a vested interest in your treatment.  

Links to symptom checkers: