Use the Internet to find health information? Youíre far from alone, and there are several rules of the road to help make the most of what you find.
Nearly 60 percent of U.S. adults look for health information online, according to the Pew Research Centerís Internet & American Life Project in Washington. And one-quarter of U.S. adults have read someone elseís writing about their medical issues in a blog or on a website.
More than 95 million Americans visited websites related to health, fitness and nutrition in June, according to Nielsen. Thatís more than two out of five people who were active online that month. WebMD Health Network led the way with 24.6 million unique U.S. users, followed by Everyday Health, Yahoo! Health sites, Livestrong.com and About.com Health, Nielsen found.
Here are six questions to ask yourself when searching for online health information:
1. Are you going to multiple sites and not just stopping at one commercial site, such as the drug manufacturerís website, for your information? Compare multiple sources, suggests Joanna Smith, president of Healthcare Liaison, a health care advocacy outfit in Berkeley, Calif. A mix of government-funded and advertising-supported sites may help you get a more balanced picture. Government sites such as the National Institutes of Health(http://www.nih.gov/) can offer you information about traditional Western medical approaches as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Other publicly funded sites include those of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (http://www.cdc.gov/) and the National Library of Medicine (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/), which also hosts ClinicalTrials.gov.
Smith suggests starting with commercial sites and broadening from there. ďIt doesnít mean itís a bad website. It just means the buyer needs to beware. The information on those sites can be extraordinarily good information. But donít stop there.Ē Check the date on the information listed to make sure itís current and whether itís peer-reviewed by physicians or other experts.
2. Do you winnow your printed material down to a manageable load before you present it to your doctor? Try to arrive with a synopsis of your research and a few targeted questions.
3. Are you working with a doctor or clinical team thatís open to discussing what you find online? Some health care providers arenít receptive to patients who do their own research, Smith says. If the stylistic match between doctor and patient isnít a good fit, it may be time to find a new physician. ďYou can do great research, but if you donít have a provider who wants to do that kind of participatory medicine youíre not go to get very far with it,Ē she says.
4. Have you browsed the websites of national nonprofit organizations dedicated to your condition? Groups such as the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, Arthritis Foundation and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society offer many patient guides and support tools. Local chapters may offer peer support groups as well. ACOR.org, short for Association of Cancer Online Resources, is a free collection of 127 different online cancer communities.
5. Have you overlooked patientsí experience close to home in favor of online groups? Standards of medical treatment vary widely across the country, so if youíre considering having an invasive procedure or surgery, ask your doctor to connect you with patients in his or her practice who have chosen that option. Once your doctor obtains their permission to be contacted, patients are often forthcoming about the outcomes they had and how they weighed the decision, based on their particular health histories.
6. Are you using the buddy system? No matter how much online information youíve mined, itís a good idea to bring a trusted family member or friend with you to your medical appointments to help you ask the right questions and take notes. Itís easy to be overwhelmed when youíre not feeling well and a large amount of information exchange is compressed into a short office visit.