Crazy? Press 1 for Yes, 2 for No

Can a new computer program conduct psychiatric evaluations as well as trainedclinicians? Some psychologists say yes--and add that the computer may even catch problems human interviewers miss.

The IVR-PRIME-MD, as the new diagnostic tool is known, is administered by computer and accessed by telephone; callers respond to a series of questions by pushing buttons. Creator Kenneth Kobak, Ph.D., reports that computer and clinician interviews identified similar rates of psychiatric disorders, and that the computer registered higher levels of alcohol abuse and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)--perhaps because patients were uncomfortable admitting such behaviors to another person. It picked up fewer incidences of panic disorder, however, and Kobak, of the Dean Foundation for Health, in Wisconsin, says that the anxiety part of the test may require further tinkering.

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So will computers come to replace mental health professionals altogether? Kobak says no: "This program was never intended to substitute for a doctor. We envision IVR-PRIME-MD as a tool that primary care physicians can use to better treat their patients," perhaps offering it as part of an annual checkup. Still, technophobes won't be reassured by another project now underway at the Dean Foundation: computer-administered psychotherapy, which Kobak reports has been used to successfully treat people with depression, OCD, and fear of flying.

PHOTO (COLOR): Crazy press 1 for yes, 2 for no

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