Who Can You Trust for Online Health Information?
Keeping everyone in the family healthy is a parent's top priority. That's why, even before H1N1 showed up, health information was the topic people were most likely to look for online. Unfortunately, the sheer quantity of online information makes finding what you want like drinking from a fire hose.
While researching health information on your own doesn't replace a face-to-face visit with your health care provider — especially for serious concerns — you can find reliable health information if you start with the right Web site. At one end of the spectrum are search engines such as Medline, with technical terms and clinical studies designed for people with medical training. Generic search engines, like Google, are at the other extreme. Typing a health condition or, even worse, a symptom into an all-purpose search engines is like asking for health advice from the next 10 people you see. You may luck out and find a doctor or a nurse, but you're also likely to find plenty of people who have strong opinions based on little more than their own experience — or their desire to sell an ineffectual product at inflated prices.
When someone you love isn't feeling well, the last thing you need is a Web site with an ax to grind, a product to sell or a conspiracy theory to defend. You need sound, sensible advice derived from reliable scientific research as well as practical experience. Here are some Web sites that provide that winning combination:
WebMD.com has earned its reputation as a first-rate health portal. Journalists committed to impartial coverage of medical news staff the site. An independent medical board reviews content, which is clearly differentiated from advertising and sponsored messages. A special section about Parenthood and Pregnancy includes active bulletin boards moderated by experts so discussions stay civil.
Healthychildren.org is a new Web site from the American Academy of Pediatrics that gives parents answers to the kinds of questions they would ask if they had unlimited time with the pediatrician. In addition to a comprehensive Ages and Stages section, the site provides advice about preventing health problems and detailed information on 300 of the most common childhood health problems.
Healthline.com has a Symptom Checker where you can search for causes of common problems like headache or earache. For each symptom, the Symptom Checker generates a list of potential causes with related symptoms that makes it easier to zero in on the most likely problem. The site also has a treatment search tool that generates a list of treatment options that include alternative treatments graded for efficacy.
Righthealth.com functions like a standard search engine but searches only health sites with a reputation for quality, such as medical journals, research institutes and nonprofit agencies. The result is a "guide" that sorts information into helpful categories including articles, news, videos, research, reference, advice, organizations and even personal experience. Tabs at the top of each search results page help you drill down if you want to know about symptoms, treatment, causes or prevention.
Bing.com, a new multipurpose search engine from Microsoft, is an exception to the rule about not using generic search engines for health information. "Quick tabs" on the left side of every search help you focus your search more precisely on, for example, treatment or causes. The material that appears when you click on these tabs is drawn from a library of authoritative sources that are clearly labeled.
Health on the Net (www.hon.ch) is an international nonprofit that developed the first certification system for online health information. HON now has its own search engine, which returns only sites that have met its criteria for being trustworthy. You can further filter search results to get only sites relevant to children, women, seniors and other specific groups. It's also worth bookmarking the Mother and Child Glossary, which provides basic information about topics like pregnancy and common childhood illnesses (www.hon.ch/Dossier/MotherChild).
Medlineplus.gov gives parents remarkably easy access to a wide range of resources from the National Library of Medicine as well as the National Institutes of Health. In addition to a comprehensive medical encyclopedia and a dictionary of medical terms, the site offers directories of health providers and even information about health insurance. If you're looking for information about a specific area, such as autism or sports injuries, check the Other Resources section for organizations grouped by health topic. The patient or consumer sections of these specialized Web sites are often excellent sources of information about specific conditions.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) (http://nccam.nih.gov) provides candid advice about the pros and cons of alternative practices ranging from acupuncture to yoga as well as supplements such as Hoodia and Valerian. Under the section "Be an Informed Consumer," you'll find detailed advice about evaluating health Web sites as well as information about what to do if your health insurer is unwilling to pay for CAM treatments.
No matter where it comes from, online health information should supplement and not replace consultation with your physician. Doctors often have ambivalent feelings about patients who pre-research medical conditions online, in part because health care providers have to re-educate those who have been seduced by improbable claims and wishful thinking. By using reliable health information sites, your online research can help contribute to informed decisions that will protect and improve the health of your family.
Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.