By Elizabeth Wasserman
When there's an illness in the family, the first place Andrea Rosenthal turns to for advice is the Internet. It's not that the mother of two trusts all online web sites for diagnoses. But if her son has swollen glands in his throat or her daughter has a rash, Rosenthal says looking up the symptoms on a site such as WebMD can help her diagnose the best step to take to care for her kids.
"I like to use the Internet to figure out whether or not to take them to the doctor," Rosenthal says. "Or to figure out what type of doctor to see."
There's no doubt: It's easy to search the web for medical advice these days. A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found 79% of Internet users have researched at least one health topic online, from diseases or medical treatments to medications. In addition to health reference sites, the Internet provides an opportunity to connect with others suffering from similar maladies -- or their families. There are autism support groups. There are discussion groups for sufferers with colitis and Crohn's disease. Cancer survivors have also formed online communities.
But medical experts warn that some of the information you find online might hurt more than help. With the click of a mouse, you might end up with a misdiagnosis or order dangerous medications. "It's definitely not a substitute for your medical doctor's advice," says Dr. Michael Smith, medical editor at WebMD. Dr. Smith adds that the Internet can be a valuable tool for helping you to "fully understand medical information and make more informed health choices for you and your family."
Anyone can put up an "Rx" web site, so here's how to separate quality medical advice from potential quacks:
Rx Tip #1: Verify the site's sponsor
Find out who's behind a so-called medical site before you take the advice to heart. Is a medication being recommended by a research institution, the company that manufacturers the drug, or a blogger whose only qualification may be that he was born in a hospital? These days, a large number of medical web sites that seem like editorial or unbiased advice sites are actually produced by pharmaceutical companies. To steer clear of pure marketing sites, check out the online guide by the 200-year-old non-profit, The Medical Libraries Association: User's Guide to Finding and Evaluating Health Information on the Web. The MLA's first piece of advice is to check whether the site has an advisory board or consultants. The MLA also advises that web addresses can also provide clues about sponsorship. A government agency's site should end in ".gov," a university's site should end in ".edu," a health professional organization should be identified by ".org." On the other hand, a ".com" site can be trickier -- it might be run by a company that wants to sell you something. To probe deeper, review the copyright information on the site or terms of service to find out who's really behind the site.
Rx Tip #2: Check credentials
Medical advances are made daily, so avoid taking advice from a site that's stale. "You don't want to be reading information that was published on a health site five years ago and hasn't been reviewed since," Smith says. Another red flag is when a site presents more opinion than fact and doesn't label its content as such. Many bloggers opine about medical topics, and you may agree or disagree with their views, but don't necessarily decide that you have lung cancer just because a site says your cough is a sure sign of the disease. The MLA suggests that creditable online medical information should disclose its source -- professional studies, abstracts, or links to other web pages. Beware also of sites that volunteer to give you an over-the-Internet diagnosis for a serious ailment. No web site is a replacement for meeting with your physician if your condition requires medication or immediate attention, Smith says.
Rx Tip #3: Use trusted sources
One of the safest places to get online medical information online is from an organization or agency that you already know and trust. The National Cancer Institute provides information about cancers, treatments, clinical trials, and other literature. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers information about maladies from Avian Influenza to Zoster (aka Chicken Pox). The American Academy of Family Physicians provides advice on how to choose a doctor and has a run-down on over-the-counter medications, what they are and how they work.
Several research hospitals and clinics also post resourceful information online, such as the prestigious Mayo Clinic. The Journal of the American Medical Association web site features articles on everything from opiate analgesia in abdominal pain to respiratory effects of a smoking ban in public places. Several commercial sites also have earned reputations for providing credible information. WebMD, which has all content reviewed by certified physicians and specialists, has a handy symptom checker, where you can click on a part of the body to see what possible ailments could be causing your pain. HealthCentral features medically-reviewed content from doctors, researchers and patients on combating everything from cold sores to gangrene. And of course, well-known physicians who appear on TV and have written best-selling books, such as Dr. Weil or Dr. Oz, who have their own web sites as well.
When in doubt, if the tips from the web don't work or you can find the support or information you need, it's always best to see your doctor. But in some cases, some trusty web research could mean you can save yourself a co-pay and time, says Rosenthal: "I don't need to see a doctor if it's something I can handle at home."
Elizabeth Wasserman is a freelance writer and editor based in Fairfax, Va. She writes for a variety of publications including Congressional Quarterly, Inc magazine, and she edits the online publication CIO Strategy Center.
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