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Can Web take place of doctor?
Getting medical advice from the Web can be bad for your mental health

Date published: 6/25/2006

I DON'T THINK my job is in danger.

Francine (as I shall call her) had me worried for a moment. She had red bumps under her arm. Instead of coming to the doctor, though, she had gone to her computer.

"You searched on 'red bumps under the arm'?" I asked her, incredulous.

She was convinced it was lymphoma; I diagnosed it as folliculitis.

Folliculitis is an infection of the hair follicles--often caused by shaving. Francine was not very receptive to my suggestion of going European and allowing those lush tufts of hair to grow in her armpits. In common with most American women, she had that horror of underarm and leg hair. But, failing the commonsense approach, a short course of antibiotics was all she needed, in my opinion.

Lymphoma is a nasty malignancy of the lymphatics, and she was ready to call in the oncologist.

Which points to another problem of self-diagnosing on the computer. To wit, "cyberchondriacs." If you have any kind of tendency toward hypochondriasis, it's all too easy to be led to some depressing Web sites. When I visited WebMD.com, an online health information site, and entered "red bumps under the arm," one of the links it came up with was about HIV.

What all this got me wondering was, How good a substitute is your computer for your doctor?

Now that we are all computerized in our office, I joke about how, one day, the nurse will show you into the exam room, and there, instead of a shabby, harassed doctor, will be just the computer.

In some ways, computers are ideal for making a diagnosis in that they are extremely efficient at reviewing and computing information.

Abdominal pain is a good example. If the pain gets better with antacids, the problem is probably that your stomach is inflamed. If the pain comes on with a fatty meal, it's probably your gall bladder. If it's in your right lower quadrant and it hurts like hell to move around, your appendix is about to burst.

If you feed the relevant facts to the computer, it should be able to match up the symptoms to the diagnoses--and be less fallible than your doctor, who has a tendency to forget things.


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DR. PATRICK NEUSTATTER is a family practitioner with Pratt Medical Center in North Stafford.