Would You Trust This Family Doctor?

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Family Doctor Home ScreenFamily Doctor Home Screen When you don’t feel well, what’s your typical response? Make an appointment with your doctor? Hit Google or Wikipedia? Flip open a book? Now, thanks to Dorling Kindersley, there’s an app for that. Family Doctor uses a flowchart system to check your symptoms, offer a diagnosis and inform you on your next steps (like self help or consulting a doctor), all from the comfort of your iPhone.

I received a review code to try out Family Doctor – Symptoms and Diagnosis, which sells for $4.99 in the iTunes App Store. Unfortunately, I feel like you get what you pay for, and a five-buck doctor is only going to tell you so much.

The interface is pretty nice, actually: with separate charts for children and adults, plus some more specific questions for men or women, there’s a lot of information included in the app. Navigating from section to section is fairly simple, and following the flowcharts is actually pretty cool. For some ailments there are Self Help sections offering things that you can do at home. However, if you rely on the app instead of your own common sense, you’re apt to find yourself suffering from cyberchondria.

For instance, my four-year-old daughter had a bit of a cough due to a cold. It’s the sort of thing that normally we’d treat with lots of fluid and rest, and wouldn’t visit the doctor unless it persisted. You know, regular cough-and-runny-nose sort of thing. I put Family Doctor to the test—I figured it would spit out something like “common cold.”

In the introductory paragraph it does state that the “vast majority of coughs are due to minor infections of the throat or upper airways, such as colds.” But then it also goes on to say that coughing at night could be a sign of asthma. So I decided to follow the handy flowchart. Depending on how I answer the questions, I always seem to end up with asthma, perennial allergic rhinitis, or “consult your doctor.” (Mostly asthma, which our four-year-old doesn’t have.) I’m sure there’s some degree of lawsuit-avoidance here, but I doubt there are many cases where the app says: “Hey, don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.”

Family Doctor sample screensFamily Doctor sample screens

It’s hard to really test this out in depth, but I asked my family doctor wife to act as a patient with various symptoms to see what answers we’d get. On the less-severe causes, we got things as above—if your common sense fails you, you may worry about more severe diagnoses by following the charts. But in some more life-threatening cases, the opposite may occur, which is worse. For example, my wife gave me answers for somebody in the early stages of appendicitis, and we ended up with acid reflux. Changing the answers a little bit led to a possible heart condition, or something else—but basically unless you’d had the pain for more than four hours, the app wasn’t able to identify it as appendicitis.

She also tested a subarachnoid hemorrhage (bleeding within the skull) following a head injury—something that could kill you if not treated immediately—but was told that headaches are common after a head injury and you should try self-help measures unless it persists more than 24 hours … at which point you’d probably be dead. (The app does have a subarachnoid hemorrhage diagnosis, but only if you haven’t had any head injuries.) On the opposite end of the spectrum, when I checked warning signs for “headache” it informed me that I should call an ambulance right away if it’s accompanied by certain symptoms including “stiff neck.” My wife said, sure, because if you can’t lift your head at all and you have a severe headache (and a fever) you may have meningitis. To me, a “stiff neck” is how I feel if I’ve slept in a funny position. The app can’t tell you that, no, that’s not what I mean by “stiff neck.”

So, overall, I don’t think I can give Family Doctor a very high rating: it overrates minor problems, misses major problems, and I’m not sure I would trust it on anything I really had questions about. If you’re the sort of person who would rather consult your iPhone than an actual doctor, this might be the app for you. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t wind up with a proper diagnosis.

Wired: Cheaper and less anxiety-producing than actually going to the doctor. You get to keep all your clothes on.

Tired: May be only slightly more accurate than Dr. Leo Spaceman—and not nearly as funny.

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