The Medical Minute: Internet medical searches -- Got information?

July 22, 2004

By John Messmer
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

Information is the currency of the 21st century. We want and often need up-to-date information about the weather, current events, the stock market, the job market or even J.Lo's latest beau, but many of us will one day need to learn all we can about a medical condition, test or treatment. Today, more information than we can possibly imagine is just a click away on the Internet. However, just as money can be counterfeit, information can be worthless -- or worse, harmful. Just because it's on the Internet, it is not guaranteed to be correct. Anyone can start a Web site and publish whatever they want even if it's just their own opinion.

If your doctor gives you or a loved one a new diagnosis, he or she may take time to explain it, but it's hard to absorb all that new information in the limited time with the doctor. You may have new questions about treatments or testing that come up later. Even if your doctor takes the time to answer all your questions, you may want to read more about it. How does a non-medical person find accurate, reliable, unbiased medical information?

Don't start with a search engine like Google or Ask Jeeves. These services rate results based on how many other people go to sites with the keywords you are searching. In medicine, the opinion of the crowd is not necessarily the best place to look. Be wary of the thousands of Web sites with information that is biased, misleading or downright wrong. Sites that claim amazing breakthroughs, fantastic results with little or no effort, or miraculous cures probably are untrue and may be dangerous. Follow the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

A good place to start to find accurate information is with government-sponsored Web sites related to health. In the old days, when we wanted to look something up, we went to the library. It's still a good place to go, particularly the National Library of Medicine: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/nlmhome.html

The home page has information on current health news, links to special articles, medical publications and featured sites. Search on a word and the results include related words and topics. For example, a search on the word "autism" provides information on the problem from several reliable sources, but it includes links to other types of related development problems and information about the accusation of vaccines causing autism. Enter "statins" (a group of cholesterol-lowering drugs) and get links to cholesterol guidelines and heart disease, side effects and links to the individual drugs.

The Centers for Disease Control at http://www.cdc.gov has links to information on many diseases and conditions plus publications on public health, workplace safety, vaccines, travel medicine and notices for foreign travel, and the 2004 Surgeon General's report on smoking. Enter "lyme" on the search engine and get 1,823 links -- more information than you would care to know on this tick-borne illness.

Interested in the latest on cholesterol treatment? Go to The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute site at http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov for current recommendations as well as information on such blood diseases as clots, sickle cell anemia, thalassemia and von Willebrand's disease, and lung problems such as asthma and chronic lung diseases.

Need information on cancer? Go to the National Cancer Institute Web site at http://www.cancer.gov to find everything from terminology to disease-specific topics to statistics. If you want to know the latest on clinical trials for new cancer therapies, click on the "Clinical Trials" tab, enter the type of cancer and what aspect of treatment you want to research plus your ZIP code, and get a list of clinical trials in your area. Click on one of the trials to get a description of what is being used and whom to contact. Don't know what a clinical trial is? Click on the "Learning About Clinical Trials" link.

Maybe you know someone struggling with anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder. Go to the National Institute of Mental Health at http://www.nimh.nih.gov/ for links to these and more problems of mental health. Individual topics have links to descriptions, symptoms and treatment. Additionally, future progress is discussed. Other covered topics include attention deficit, eating disorders, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and more.

In addition to government agencies, there are other reliable sources. Many academic medical centers have abundant medical information available on their own Web sites. At Penn State Hershey Medical Center -- http://www.hmc.psu.edu/healthinfo -- you can find information on a variety of topics from abdominal aortic aneurysm to yeast infection. Or, if the topic or question is not listed, you can e-mail your question to a health librarian at http://www.hmc.psu.edu/healthinfo/librarian.htm

Perhaps you have a symptom and have no idea what it could be. Should you call the doctor? Go to http://familydoctor.org/symptom.xml and follow the question algorithm for suggestions as to possible diagnosis and whether to contact your doctor. Remember that a Web site is no substitute for an in-person examination.

WebMD at http://my.webmd.com/ has a large variety of general medical topics. You can look up various conditions and symptoms, take health quizzes and enroll in short courses on such things as diabetes, pregnancy or feeding a baby, or you can read about drugs and herbs. Although WebMD has sponsors, the content appears to be free from influence by those sponsors.

Remember that medical knowledge is most useful with experienced interpretation by a physician, but no doctor knows everything. Use the Internet to educate yourself and to help your doctor give you and your family the best medical care.

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Last Updated March 20, 2009