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Some online sources offer good medical advice

Now some hospitals and doctors' offices are offering ways to check your symptoms online.
November 25, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
If you've got a headache, sore throat, congestion and a fever, would you go to the doctor or your computer? These days many people go online immediately to check out symptoms. Surprisingly, getting online advice may be just what the doctor ordered. But experts say you have to be careful: Not every site is good for your health.

Search engines like Google and Yahoo make more house calls these days than most doctors. Checking your symptoms online can be scary and some sites can give you bad advice. Now some hospitals and doctors' offices are offering ways to check your symptoms online.

Physicians used to worry 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.

"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, unnecessary trips to the emergency room, as well as save people money on co-payments. It can also help patients determine what to do next.

But experts warn: Look for reputable and trusted sources.

"Should generally be trusted more than information that's coming from an organization that the patient has never heard of," said Dr. Christine Laine, senior vice president, American College of Physicians.

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

One more tip: Look for online information that comes from an impartial source. Be aware that some websites with sponsorships may have a vested interest in your treatment.

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