As websites improve, doctors say it's OK to search your symptoms

One hospital has made a symptom checker available on its website

While online websites can sometimes steer patients astray—"people tend to freak out when they read all the scary conditions they might [have]" according to one expert—more doctors and hospitals are now encouraging patients to better understand their symptoms by looking them up online, Laura Landro writes for the Wall Street Journal.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a Philips North America survey conducted in December 2012 found that more than 40% of U.S. residents reported feeling comfortable about using online tools to understand their symptoms. The survey also found that 25% of people use such symptom-checkers just as often as they visit their physicians, while another 25% said they use the tools as an alternative to seeing their doctors.

Experts: Websites have pros, cons

Symptom-checking websites can have both positive and negative effects on care, according to some experts.

For example, patients might see their physicians with a list of serious but unlikely illnesses that the sites suggested, which might require unnecessary and costly screenings. Additionally, some patients have avoided seeking necessary medical care because the online sites suggested that their symptoms did not require a physician visit.

On the other hand, lists of possible ailments from the websites could help physicians make a diagnosis that they might not have considered, preventing missed diagnoses, says Jason Maude, CEO of Isabel Healthcare, which produces an online diagnosis checklist for physicians. Moreover, encouraging patients to use online tools beforehand could save time and make consultations more productive.

"Patients are experts on their symptoms and doctors are experts in working out their probable causes," and need to work together to create a list of possible diagnoses, says Maude.

Omaha Children's Hospital & Medical Center is one of the many companies that have begun offering symptom-checkers as part of a broader set of interactive tools for patients. In January, the hospital added Isabel to its homepage, and it plans to include a link to Isabel's consumer symptom check in the login page for its new electronic health record system.

"People are already using the Internet for health information and we are giving them a much better tool than just googling a bunch of stuff," says Omaha Children's Chief Information Officer George Reynolds, adding, "They get better and smarter questions to come to their doctor with" (Landro, Journal, 7/22).

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