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SAY 'AAAH' | Your Health Online

Surf's Up: Bolster Your Medical IQ With the Internet

November 02, 1998|MARLA BOLOTSKY | Marla Bolotsky is managing editor and director of online information for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. She can be reached by e-mail at health@latimes.com. She welcomes suggestions on interesting and useful Web sites

The expression used to be, "Look it up in the dictionary. Or go to the library." But now, with the convenience and speed of the Internet, "Look it up on the Web" has become the information expression of our day. People are turning to the Internet first for all types of information: news, politics, sports, word definitions, games, chat rooms on every conceivable subject--even a step-by-step guide to tying a bow tie.

You can also use the Web to improve your health (there are online nutritional analyzers), to learn about diseases and treatments, and how to prevent illness. There are sites devoted to medical news, to information about prescription drugs and to specific types of cancer. The sponsors of these sites include prestigious medical journals, world-class medical centers, disease support groups, government agencies and health care companies. And, yes, there are many sites run by unidentifiable, or unrecognizable, individuals or organizations.

Many consumers have discovered that information found on the Web or in Internet chat rooms or discussion groups is a great complement to seeing a health professional. In fact, a survey last year found that 43% of the more than 40 million Americans using the Internet were seeking health information. Some even credit the Internet with saving lives.

But what information can you trust? In the coming weeks and months, this column will help you navigate this maze of valuable and not-so-valuable health care information. We'll review sites dealing with such topics as wellness, diseases, medical research, insurance and other health care resources. We'll identify the sponsors of the site, tell you whether they take advertising (and from whom) and assess the currency of the information.

There is a growing movement in the health community to analyze medical information on the Internet. Recently, a panel of health care, media, computer and technical experts issued a report on "interactive health communication" and offered recommendations for improvement. The group, brought together by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, concluded that interactive health communication has "great potential to improve health, but may also cause harm." The experts concluded that there were few methods in place for consumers, doctors or other health professionals to evaluate the quality of health information on the Internet.

This column will review some of the many thousands of health sites, bringing you the best and weeding out the weaker ones. But first, a quick technical primer for those who are new to the Internet:

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Web Words to Know:

The Internet, which began in the 1960s as a computer network for defense-related activities, is a global network of computer networks that connect nations, governments, businesses, organizations and academic institutions. The Internet is divided into several branches, or domains, which become part of the URL.

The World Wide Web (www) is an immense collection of interconnected documents. It's the multimedia portion of the Internet.

URL: The uniform resource locater is the location of the information, or Web address. The most common networks are gov (government), com (commercial), edu (education) and org (organization). These common networks are incorporated into the address. For instance, the URL for the Los Angeles Times is http://www.latimes.com, the state of California's URL is http://www.ca.gov, the California Department of Health Services is located at http://www.dhs.cahwnet.org and UCLA's address is http://www.ucla.edu.

Browsers: To access the Web, you "open" a Web browser program--in most cases, either Netscape Navigator or Microsoft's Internet Explorer--which allows you to access and display the documents. This allows the users', or clients', computers to talk to the information providers, or Web servers.

HTML: Hypertext Markup Language, the language of the Web, allows you to link to other sources of information. If you want more information on a particular subject mentioned in the document you are reading, you can usually "click" the underlined text and go directly to another document, which may or may not be on that same Web site.

Where do I begin? you ask. Most people's main entry onto the Web is through a search engine or directory, which will produce a listing of sites that are categorized as health sites or contain the word "health." A search of Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com), for instance, brought up 16,876 sites for health. A search on Alta Vista (http://www.altavista.com) showed more than 20 million health-related Web pages and a prompt that recommended "refining your search."

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