The adage "You're your own best doctor" seems to have gotten a shot in the arm on the Internet, where an increasing number of health-related Web sites are dispensing information on everything from the causes and symptoms of diseases to the potency and side effects of prescription drugs.
And demand for that information--in an age of growing frustration with HMOs and insurance companies--appears to be insatiable.
Visits to one site, OnHealth.com (http://www.onhealth.com), reached 1.2 million in July, a 30% jump over June's figures, according to Seattle-based OnHealth Network Co. At the same time, orders for customized home pages at HealthAtoZ.com (http://www.healthatoz.com) are said to have climbed 10% in July, pushing membership at the site to more than 300,000.
It's a sign that many Web users are looking to take greater control over their health, said Eric Brown with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.
Forrester, which surveys Internet trends, is planning to launch a study soon on the number and popularity of health-related Web sites. Brown expects the report will reveal a groundswell of interest. At a time when consumers are turning to the Web to research stock market and automobile purchases, it's not surprising they would also use it for something as important as their own well-being, Brown said.
One of the most celebrated medical Web sites is put out by former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. Atop the main page of Drkoop.com (http://www.drkoop.com) is a terse preface from Koop himself: "The best prescription is knowledge."
Visits to his site soared in June after Austin, Texas-based Drkoop.com Inc. had a jaw-dropping first day of trading on Wall Street when its initial public stock offering went as high as $509 million.
News of the offering sparked interest in the year-old site and renewed appreciation for its creator, who for most of the 1980s was the country's top public health-care official. Media Metrix, which measures online usage, has rated Drkoop.com the No. 1 Internet health network.
Despite its avuncular authority, Drkoop.com offers pretty much the same features as other health-related Web sites, which mostly serve to put users in touch with articles, briefings and scholarly reports covering issues from disease diagnosis and treatment to nutrition tips and exercise programs.
These medical Web sites, however, are careful to warn that information they provide should not be taken as a substitute for the advice of medical professionals.
Still, the volume of medical information on these sites can be overwhelming.
The search function at HealthAtoZ.com, for instance, scans 50,000 health and medical resources on the Internet. A search on "back pain" turned up nearly 1,200 citations.
Like other search engines, health-related Web sites can be picky about key words. "Myopia" turned up more links, for example, than "nearsightedness" at Healthfinder (http://www.healthfinder.gov), a service operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Health-related Web sites also serve as interactive forums for users, offering chat rooms and message boards to those who have the same disease to give them a chance to share stories and advice.
Other features common to most medical sites are news and general interest sections that provide stories on recent health-related developments or seasonal topics such as avoiding bacteria in barbecue foods and back-to-school safety precautions.
But for all their similarities, some health-related Web sites offer features that distinguish them from the rest of the pack.
HealthAtoZ, for instance, offers something called "E-Mate," which sends registrants e-mail reminders of medical appointments, medication schedules, exercise regimens and diet instructions. The site also has a feature called "Your health IQ" that asks questions related to certain illnesses and assesses the risk of contraction based on the answers.
It's common to come across unknown words on these sites, and the "Medical Dictionary" and "Procedures & Tests" sections on MedicineNet.com (http://www.medicinenet.com) can help understand them. The site offers comprehensive, often illustrated, definitions of health terms and descriptions of common surgical and medical procedures.
Meanwhile, those shopping around for doctors in their area can turn to OnHealth.com. The site's "Local Health Directory" feature takes ZIP Codes and returns lists of clinics, hospitals and health-care organizations that specialize in any of nearly 100 health categories such as dermatology, cardiology and pediatrics. A check of "oncology" for 90026, for example, came back with 33 entries.
And just in case the Internet is not enough to satisfy a user's demand for medical information, TheHealthChannel.com (http://www.thehealthchannel.com) takes ZIP Codes and names of local cable companies and creates customized TV schedules that list upcoming health-related programs.
For the most part, these health sites offer useful tools in helping to educate Web surfers on issues that are, literally, near and dear to their hearts.