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Software is no doctor, but it can be a comfort

Despite advances in the state of software, there are still some things I don't trust to my computer.

For example, my accountant still does my income taxes. Somehow, I have the gut feeling that the software in his head is a lot better than anything I can buy off the shelf at Egghead for $44.95.

So I was more than a little skeptical when I got a copy of Dr. Schueler's Home Medical Advisor. If I can't trust a computer to do my taxes, can I trust it to diagnose my aches and pains?

The answer is that I'm not going to give up calling the doctor. But as a computerized, hypertext desk reference that's comprehensive and far easier to use than any consumer medical book I've seen, this $99.95 program from Pixel Perfect Inc. is definitely worth considering.

The doctor of the title is Stephen Schueler, emergency room director at Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne. He has put together a data base of symptoms, diseases, injuries, poisons, tests, drugs and information on health and diet in a consistent, well-linked format that can give you a start in finding out what ails you.

Home Medical Advisor is available for IBM-compatibles in both DOS and Windows versions. The two versions are functionally identical. The Windows Advisor shows signs of being a quick port of the DOS program that doesn't take full advantage of Windows' graphical environment.

The most striking feature of the Advisor is its "medical history." You start by picking a general symptom from a long list (the Windows version provides an illustration of the body that narrows the list down to specific regions before you start). The Advisor then asks a series of increasingly detailed yes-or-no questions until it pinpoints a specific set of possible causes.

Let's say you have a runny nose. The program will ask if the discharge is clear or watery, whether you have a fever, whether the patient is a child who might have something stuck up his nose, whether there's a history of sinus infection, and so forth.

Depending on your chain of answers, the diagnosis could be anything from a common cold to inhalation of an irritant. The diagnosis screen contains a brief description of the cause, along with hypertext links (highlighted terms) that make it easy to bring up more detailed references to specific diseases, diagnostic tests or dietary recommendations.

The questions are accompanied by illustrations. Some are merely decorative, while others are useful in analyzing different types of rashes, sores and the like.

A word of caution here. This program starts up with one of the longest and most detailed disclaimer screens I've ever seen, and for good reason. It is not a substitute for calling the doctor. In fact, most diagnoses of anything more serious than bunions end with the suggestion that you call your physician.

Outside of the symptom file, the Advisor contains a wealth of searchable information, with thousands of entries about diseases, injuries, poisons, diagnostic tests and prescription drugs.

I was impressed because the poison file contained information I once desperately needed when my older son (then much younger) decided to eat a felt-tip marker. This is not a particularly common poison and wasn't in any of the 200 medical books my wife had collected at the time.

The Advisor advised that felt-tip markers are essentially nontoxic (the ambulance isn't necessary). But it said to check with the local poison control center to make sure and to examine the lad to make sure he hadn't swallowed anything that could lodge in an airway.

The drug file, with descriptions of 1,200 common and not-so-common prescription and over-the-counter medicines, is also useful and informative.

It tells you what each particular drug does (something doctors don't always do when they write a prescription), and describes possible adverse side effects and conflicts with other drugs.

Likewise, the file on diagnostic tests explains a wide variety of procedures, ranging from bone marrow biopsies to pelvic sonograms.

Just as important, each entry explains what the results mean. The explanations of cholesterol and related blood tests (which men of my age are forced to undergo regularly) were particularly enlightening.

Overall, both the DOS and Windows programs are remarkably easy to use. The user's manual is thin, but you probably won't need it once you get past the installation instructions. The program's hypertext links allow you to move back and forth from one related subject to another instantaneously. If you can't find exactly what you're looking for, you can type in a search term, and the program will highlight all the topics that contain it.

I do wish that Pixel Perfect had taken a bit more care with the Windows version, which is crude by current standards. The program window can't be resized, and Advisor makes no allowance for different screen resolutions.

As a result, the text on my 800-by-600 pixel super VGA screen was too small and, in the default color installation, virtually unreadable.

Unfortunately, there's no way to change the text display to black on white without reinstalling the entire program. Even then, the hypertext links are displayed in a light blue face which is difficult to read.

If you're using the standard 640-by-480 pixel VGA Windows screen, you probably won't have difficulty. But better programs of this type today adjust for different screen resolutions to provide readable text in all situations.

Despite these problems, Home Medical Advisor is a friendly, comprehensive reference work. It's no substitute for a doctor, and it's far more expensive than a book, but its ability to deal with symptoms logically, locate the information you need instantly and relate it to other topics can make you a more intelligent medical consumer.

For information, contact Pixel Perfect Inc., 10460 South Tropical Trail, Merritt Island, FL 32952.

Michael J. Himowitz is the computer writer for the Baltimore Sun. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.