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Navigating medical cyberspace

There's so much info on the Web, but is it reliable? Here are some sites that stand out.

December 05, 2005|Judy Foreman | Special to The Times

We are drowning today in medical information -- and, by and large, that's a wonderful thing.

Only a few decades ago, it was considered radical when a bunch of Boston feminists dug out the kind of information we feel entitled to today and published the first "Our Bodies, Ourselves," a nitty-gritty, user-friendly medical guide for women. Now, 62.6 million Americans mine the Internet for medical information. Or, viewed another way, among Americans who use the Internet, 37% are looking for health material.

From August 2004 to August 2005, visits to medical websites grew a whopping 23%, according to ComScore Media Metrix, an Internet audience measurement company based in Reston, Va.

With such a surfeit, the challenge these days is finding trustworthy medical information amid all the profit-driven, misleading or just plain erroneous stuff on the Web. So here are some sites with carefully vetted, understandable information:

The government actually does a wonderful job on medical websites. The best by far for researching any disease -- and the only site you really need if you're trying to get the basics in a few hours -- is www.nih.gov, run by the National Institutes of Health. From the main site, you can get reasonably detailed information on many diseases, plus links to other government sites such as www.clinicaltrials.gov, which lets you plug in a disease and state and get information on studies you can join.

Other good government sites for researching diseases and finding general health information are www.medlineplus.gov, which is run by the NIH and the National Library of Medicine; www.healthfinder.gov, put together by the Department of Health and Human Services; and www.cancer.gov, run by the National Cancer Institute. A more esoteric site that requires some heavy slogging is www.ahrq.gov, run by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, part of HHS; it's not user-friendly, but has excellent reviews of research on selected topics.

If you're a medical junkie or have already mastered the basics of a disease and want to read medical studies, try PubMed, www.pubmed.gov, a search service from the National Library of Medicine that provides access to more than 11 million citations in medical journals. Once you find a journal article, you can usually get the abstract for free; if you want the whole text, you can go to the journal in which it appeared, though you may have to pay.

Among the nongovernmental sites, a favorite is Consumer Reports' Medical Guide, www.consumerreportsmedicalguide.org. Much of the information here is free, though for some material, you have to pay $19 a year or $4.95 a month. The guide can help you sort out with your doctor whether you need a mastectomy or lumpectomy for breast cancer, for instance, or what the best treatment for your prostate cancer is.

The country's most popular medical site (again, according to ComScore) is WebMD, www.webmd.com, which also ranks No. 1 for quality on Consumer Reports' Top 20 list of health sites. (In the interest of full disclosure: The writer has a contract with WebMD to publish her columns.) Although the site can seem too busy visually, there's a good reason the site is popular -- it's extensive and quite user-friendly.

Among the sites run by teaching hospitals, check out the Mayo Clinic at www.mayoclinic.com. It has clear information on many diseases and carries the two seals of approval you should look for on any medical website, one from Health on the Net, www.healthonnet.org, and the other from URAC, www.urac.org. Both of these independent, nonprofit organizations use specific criteria to vet information on health websites.

Many medical schools also have websites, though some of these are better at promoting their own doctors or research than giving general medical information. One good one is Harvard's: Go to www.hms.harvard.edu and click on "consumer information," then "intelihealth." The site is owned by Aetna Inc., but Harvard Medical School has editorial responsibility.

If it's drug information you're hunting, skip the Food and Drug Administration's site (it can be difficult to navigate), and go to www.PDRhealth.com. The site gives consumer-friendly information based on FDA-approved information from the Physicians Desk Reference, the doctors bible of drug information. Or try www.safemedication.com, run by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

For cost comparisons, safety and effectiveness of some commonly prescribed drugs, got to Consumer Reports' relatively new offering, Best Buy Drugs, www.crbestbuydrugs.org.

Three final thoughts: Steer clear of sites that promote a particular product, treatment or doctor. Check out your health plan on the Web (some offer medical as well as insurance information).

And visit -- with caution -- the patient advocacy groups for whatever disease interests you. Some of the information may be biased, but visiting these sites may suggest questions to ask your doctors about new treatments. Many patient advocacy sites also guide you to support groups.

It can be a jungle in medical cyberspace. But if you stick to the reputable sites, you can become a very savvy patient.

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