click fix

The internet offers a wealth of medical information, but caution may still be best medicine..

February 27, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

A medical revolution is taking place, in case you haven't heard.

More and more Americans are getting their health information online and then marching into their doctor's office armed with computer printouts.

The Internet "will ultimately change the dynamics of medicine," says Dr. Dean Edell, host of a popular health-related radio talk show and co-founder of the Web site HealthCentral.com.

Take Kris Moore, 42, who lives in Michigan. She searched such sites as InteliHealth, jointly run by Johns Hopkins and Aetna U.S. Healthcare, when her 9-year-old daughter started waking up in the morning with abdominal pain -- 12 hours after she had eaten. Tests showed nothing abnormal.

"I read about disorders, but nothing quite matched her symptoms, which in a way was useful," says Moore. When she found she had to wait more than two months for an appointment with a specialist, Moore began researching the Internet in earnest.

Finally she found a suggestion on an AOL health message board. Children sometimes react differently than adults do to lactose intolerance. Why not try eliminating dairy products from her daughter's diet? Moore did, and the pain stopped immediately. Two months later, the specialist's tests confirmed the diagnosis.

In this case, there was little risk in following the suggestion. But, Moore warns: "I tell everybody, always check the source of your information. Check with several sources. And check with your physician. There's some crazy stuff out there."

In spite of the pitfalls, PC World magazine estimates that 26 million Americans, a majority of them women, logged on to health-content Web sites last year. There are now some 20,000 of these sites, and more are appearing every day.

If you think getting health information on the Internet is limited to going to your favorite search engine, typing in the keyword "sinusitis" and sifting through the results, think again.

You can talk to a physician by e-mail or watch live surgeries. You can personalize a health Web site's home page so you're regularly updated with the newest information on a chronic condition. You can be entertained and informed with health and fitness quizzes or store your own medical records and prescriptions online, which can be downloaded in an emergency. You can get information from people with the same medical problem through message boards or chat rooms.

"This is what the Information Age medical care will look like," says Dr. Tom Ferguson, who monitors the online health-information industry in his newsletter the Ferguson Report. "The Internet offers access to information, access to people -- patients, families and providers -- and, in some cases, to programs."

Getting started

So how does a novice know where to look for Information Age medical care?

Ferguson recommends consulting with friends first. "Ask them to sit down with you and get you started. Using a search engine is a good way to start." Look for self-help and support groups as well as medical articles.

That's how 65-year-old Natasha Frye of Joppatowne found the information she needed when she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and was told she would need to be catheterized.

"My cardiologist explained the procedure, but I felt I wanted to know more," Frye says, so she logged onto health.yahoo.com. "I went down the levels until I found what I wanted. You have to persevere. Sometimes it's not going to pop right out at you, but if you keep digging deeper and deeper you'll probably find what you want to know."

Many folks start on one of the general health-information sites like AllHealth.com or DrKoop.com (led by former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop), where editors organize the information for you.

If the sheer number of sites has you overwhelmed, Gomez Advisors -- a company that rates e-commerce services -- has recently reviewed and ranked 20 of the most popular. Log on to www.gomez.com and click on "health content" to find out more about these sites.

The biggest problem with getting health information on the Internet is that it's not always easy to decide what's reliable. A well-publicized example is a study that appeared in the professional journal Cancer. Dr. J. Sybil Biermann and her colleagues at the University of Michigan found that one Web site reported the mortality rate for a certain type of bone cancer as 5 percent, while in reality it was closer to 75 percent. Such misinformation could be devastating.

Checking multiple sources is always a good idea. Here are some other suggestions for evaluating the reliability of Internet information:

* At many health-related sites, you can click on an "about us" icon. Here you can usually find credentials and other information that will help you decide whether you can trust the advice you're getting.

* Visit sites that are connected with a name you trust, such as Johns Hopkins' InteliHealth (www.intelihealth.com) or Mayo Clinic Health Oasis (www.mayohealth.org).

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