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Psychotherapy Enters Cyberspace Recorded, Computerized Questions Could Aid Diagnosis

If you’ve been feeling down, press 3. If your friends tell you to stop drinking, press 5.

Recorded, computerized questions over the telephone could be a quick and easy way for family doctors to detect common mental disorders that often go undetected, researchers reported in a study published today.

In some cases, people were found to be more candid with the computer than they were with a human.

Kenneth A. Kobak, a psychologist with the nonprofit Dean Foundation for Health, Research and Education in Middleton, Wis., led the study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The researchers recruited 200 people and gave them the computer call-in test as well as a standard psychological interview conducted over the telephone by a mental health professional.

Drinking problems were twice as likely to be revealed to the computer, and obsessive-compulsive disorders were three times more likely to be revealed.

The researchers used their own computer version of a standard psychological test produced by Pfizer Inc., which helped pay for the study.

Computer-telephone interviews could be done at any time through a central 800 number, Kobak said. Patients could call at their convenience, or the test could be given as part of a visit to the doctor, he said.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Richard M. Glass, deputy editor of the journal, said computer-telephone interviews could be a promising approach.

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