Sunday, October 12, 2008

Online Health Care Advice

Health care advice is all over the Internet these days. As we, the public, thirst for information without having to make an appointment to talk to a doctor for the 4 minutes he has to spare, throw some money his direction and go home feeling like the day had been wasted... we turn to the Internet for answers.

Online, you can find sites that allow you to predict your risk of getting a certain disease... get motivated to eat better, lose weight or exercise more... keep track of your family's medical history... research symptoms/disease and drugs... and on and on and on. While incredibly helpful, these tools need to be carefully evaluated and used responsibly in conjunction with proper medical care.

NOTE It has been my personal experience that when you try to tell someone else how to do their job, they instantly stop listening to you. Whipping out a printout from your computer to challenge what the doctor has told you is not generally met with a high degree of acceptance or appreciation, either. Just be prepared, if you are going to do that!

As scientists continue to expand their ability to analyze large volumes of data and distill the most important findings, properly designed online tools can enable individuals to pull out the most important and valid points for themselves. Online health tools can be beneficial but are also vulnerable to misuse or misunderstanding, which in some cases can be dangerous. Critical, however, is that the information is from a credible source.

These tools are all about averages, many calculate relative risk, not absolute risk -- and even those that go further are still only predicting risk for the average person with specific risk factors. Use online interactive tools as a starting point, not the end point. They can help you think and plan, they do not give definitive answers... they help to ask questions. They can be used to learn about possible problems and possible solutions.

Be sure any online tool you utilize comes from a valid source. You can trust that tools posted by US government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Cancer Institute (NCI), for instance, have undergone an extensive review process before being posted. Be aware that Web sites that feature advertisements or product endorsements, have a profit motive in the form of a product or service they are trying to sell.

Questions to consider when evaluating an online tool:
Who wrote the information?
What are the author(s) qualifications?
Does the site have an editorial board that includes independent medical experts in the specific area covered?
How reliable is the evidence that the findings are based upon?
When was the site last updated?
How is the site funded?
Are there any conflicts of interest?

There's also a helpful tool for evaluating online tools -- The National Library of Medicine offers a 16-minute tutorial on evaluating Internet health information. It provides a step-by-step process to help you decide if the health information on a Web site is credible. Visit Medicine Plus. MedlinePlus, provides health information, a medical encyclopedia, and a medical dictionary, as well as access to medical journal articles and health tutorials, and provides links to other health organizations.

Healthcare 411 offers current news and information from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

The American Cancer Society (ACS) Web site provides a variety of interactive tools including,
Body Mass Index (BMI) Calculator
Calorie Counter (how many calories you need based on individualized factors)
Nutrition and Activity Quiz
Exercise Counts (how many calories you burn by an activity)
Target Heart Rate Calculator
It is located at Cancer.Org

The US Surgeon General's Family History Initiative offers "My Family Health Portrait," a tool to help you organize your family's health history information to share with physicians or other family members. Here is the link: Family History

Health Finder is a comprehensive Web site developed by the US Department of Health & Human Services, together with other federal agencies, that provides links to 1,500 health-related Web sites to government and other health-related organizations.

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