`Paging Dr. Internet ... '

Health: Medical librarians list Web sites that provide reliable information.

August 22, 2002|By Judith Blake | Judith Blake,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Your bunions are killing you. So, you begin surfing the Internet for solutions.

Which Web sites can you trust to provide reliable information on fixing your foot?

Every day, millions of Americans face that same question, as growing numbers turn to the Internet for answers to health problems that range from minor ailments to life-threatening diseases.

They find an astonishing, even overwhelming, cache of information residing on countless Web sites devoted to health.

The challenge comes in sorting through it all and deciding which "facts" are true and which advice merits serious attention.

But, there is help: a list of Web sites that address an array of health conditions and are regarded as reliable by respected authorities.

Such a list is helpful because most of us are not experts at analyzing medical information and because anybody can say just about anything - true or not - on the Internet.

"The most important thing about going to a Web site is deciding whether you trust the creators of the content on the site," said Dr. Peter Tarczy-Hornoch.

A University of Washington specialist in neonatology, Tarczy-Hornoch has developed an expertise in public access to medical information on the Internet.

If you're not certain whether to trust a site's content creators, at least be sure the site comes recommended by authorities you do trust, Tarczy-Hornoch said.

Those authorities might include universities, government agencies and professional organizations (such as the American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Pediatricians, etc.), he said.

The Medical Library Association, an organization of librarians who deal daily with health and medical information, has compiled a list of reliable sites.

The librarians work at universities, hospitals and public libraries, organizing and providing information to medical professionals and/or the public.

Their jobs put them in a position to evaluate health-related Web sites with authority.

In addition, a couple of sites are recommended by experts in alternative medicine and nutrition.

Although the Medical Library Association's list has earned Tarczy-Hornoch's approval, he notes that it is only one of many such lists that could be assembled.

The library association, in fact, maintains an expanded list of 100 favorite sites. Those without a computer can find public-access computers at their local public library.

Librarians will often help search for medical information.

Of all the top consumer-health sites, the one receiving the most rave reviews from experts we interviewed was MEDLINEplus, created and maintained by the National Library of Medicine.

"It's the place I usually point people toward to begin with," said Susan Barnes, who leads the Seattle office of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine.

The site provides not only vast stores of information on various disorders, or links to such information, but also the latest news on many health fronts - sometimes before that news is released to the media.

But even if you feel confident about a Web site, never base your health-care decisions solely on Internet information, experts caution.

Always consult your health-care provider.

The information could be wrong or incomplete. That's especially true with alternative-medicine sites, said naturopathic physician Dr. Dan Labriola.

"Ninety-nine percent of what is on the Internet is nonsense, in terms of alternative medicine," Labriola said.

"And while the information on the good sites is usually fairly accurate, it's often incomplete," he said.

For instance, Labriola said, alternative-medicine sites frequently fail to point out possible adverse interactions between certain dietary supplements and prescribed medications.

A further caution: A Web site's advice - whether conventional or alternative - might be right for some people but not for your particular case.

So, take in all the Internet information you want to help understand your condition and your treatment options.

Then, call your doctor.

Together, you'll surely find help for those bunions.

Sites provide a good starting point for health questions

Here's a list from the Medical Library Association, followed by our suggestion of two alternative medicine sites. Find an expanded list of the association's 100 favorite sites at http://www.caphis.mlanet.org/consumer/in dex.html.

MEDLINEplus

www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus

Highly rated by experts on public access to medical information. Extremely comprehensive; easy to navigate. Links to hundreds of authoritative sites. The place to start your medical search, say many experts. Sponsor: National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

www.cdc.gov

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