Health Care Web Sites Can Be Helpful If They're Reputable

Article excerpt

Byline: Jane Oppermann

The Internet has quickly become the most frequently used research tool for health tips and medical resources. And while medical experts once thought older adults were immune from Web- surfing fever, it looks like they've also caught the bug.

An estimated 73 million adults in the United States go online to make critical health decisions - an increase of 21 million in just two years, according to the Pew Research Center.

About 6 million Americans - twice the population of the city of Chicago - go online for medical advice every day. That's more people than visit health care professionals, reports the American Medical Association.

This month a study in CHEST, a publication of the American College of Chest Physicians, reported that older patients with lung cancer turn to the Internet as a major source of information about their disease.

"Previous studies suggest age to be a limiting factor for Internet use. But our survey shows that older adults are clearly embracing this technology to help them seek answers about health care," said Dr. Michael W. Peterson, lead researcher in the study and chief of medicine at the University of San Francisco, Fresno.

Trouble is, researchers said, Internet surfers tend to overrate the quality of medical information they find. Many novice sleuths don't check the source of information or timeliness of the data found online. And just as traffic on the Internet has increased, so has the number of Web sites containing medical information. That means health consumers must sift through copious amounts of data without a guide, ferreting through medical terms and dodging flim- flam sales pitches for bogus cures.

"The Internet has been likened to the Wild West. It's an unregulated, anything-goes type of atmosphere. Anyone with a computer and a Web site can put ideas out there," Peterson cautioned. "The poor consumer must now do the job that medical editors have done in the past for them, and that's quite a task."

Some of the best Internet traffic cops for consumers are librarians.

Carol Scherrer, head of Information Services at the University of Illinois at Chicago, directs many health seekers to the Chicago- based Medical Library Association's Web site. You can find that guide at www.mlanet.org/.

The site contains the association's picks for the most useful medical Web sites.

It also includes a feature called Medspeak, which translates medical language into understandable terms. A similar feature helps in deciphering abbreviations on prescriptions.

You can make an old-fashioned onsite visit to the Library of the Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago because that tax-supported facility is open to the public, Scherrer said.

Web surfing will turn up a lot of information from sources you don't know. Scherrer suggests taking a close look at a site before taking any information as fact. Here are some questions to keep in mind:

- Does the page have a reputable sponsor and is the sponsor indicated on the home page? …