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Dr. Max Gomez: 'Symptom Checkers' Available Online If You Can't Reach A Doc

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Feeling sick? Many people turn to the Web to diagnose themselves.

But that can be dangerous.

Now doctors are coming up with an online remedy, CBS 2's Dr. Max Gomez reported Friday.

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 said 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," Feldman said.

It used to be that physicians worried about patients playing doctor online.

"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 Dr. Dan Feiten of Greenwood Pediatrics.

But now many are having a change of heart, thanks to "symptom checkers," created by the medical community itself, and integrated into doctor and hospital websites.

"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?" Dr. Feiten said.

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 won't give you a long list of scary possibilities, but will help you determine what to do next, Gomez reported.

"It's based on the medical literature. It's based on national guidelines from American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, other organizations," said Barton Schmitt, medical director of the pediatric call center at Children's Hospital in Colorado.

But not all medical websites are created equal. It's 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. Christine Laine, VP of the American College of Physicians.

But there is no substitute for an actual doctor's visit where a physician can actually see how sick you are and also ask questions and notice things you may not think are related and weren't part of your Internet search. Computers can't replace doctors, at least not yet, Gomez reported.

Dr. Gomez says you should steer clear of websites that have a vested interest in your treatment.

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