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The 'Net: A Tangled Web of Health Information

Experts offer advice on how to use the Internet to your advantage

THURSDAY, April 24 (HealthDay News) -- The Internet offers a dizzying amount of health information -- whatever ails you, someone is sure to have posted something about it somewhere on the Web.

But all that information can lead to overload -- or worse. You might end up heeding the wrong voice and getting some fairly bad advice.

"There's a lot of quackery on the Web," said Don Powell, president and CEO of the American Institute for Preventive Medicine. "There's a lot of bias on the Web. The Web is just wrought with misinformation and badly dated information."

One good basic piece of advice is to stick to sites ending in ".edu," ".gov" or ".org," Powell said. That means the site is run by a school, a government agency or a nonprofit organization and is, therefore, less likely to push a biased point of view, unlike some ".com" -- or commercial -- sites.

Another good way to judge a site is to see whether it's been accredited, Powell said. He noted two groups that are active in certifying sites as accurate and up-to-date: URAC and Health on the Net (HON).

"We ask people when they look on the Web that they make sure the site is accredited," he said. "It's a good way to establish trustworthiness."

Web sites published by companies or individuals can contain some good advice, but health consumers need to be more discerning when using those sites, said Dr. Jim King, a family practice doctor in Selmer, Tenn., and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

First, see who is paying for the information you are viewing. The ads supporting a site can be a hint to possible bias, King said. "It may be skewed one way or the other, based on their advertisements," he said.

Who owns the site also can be a clue. For example, is a pharmaceutical company presenting the information? "Clearly, there's a bias there toward using their own medicines," Powell said.

Powell also recommends that you double-check when the information was last updated. "Information is constantly changing in the health industry," he said. "You want to make sure it's accurate and up-to-date."

For example, a Web site recommending the use of ipecac to prompt vomiting after someone has ingested poison is running counter to the latest advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recently advised against it, Powell noted. And the guidelines for judging high blood pressure also were revised recently, and someone relying on outdated information could be in trouble and not know it.

The American Academy of Family Physicians provides a quick checklist that can help determine a site's value:

  • Who wrote the information? Health-related Web sites often post information from other sources, and those original sources should be clearly stated.
  • If a health-care professional didn't write the information, was it reviewed by a doctor or medical expert?
  • If the information contains any statistics, do the numbers come from a reliable source?
  • Does something on the Web site appear to be opinion rather than fact? If so, is the opinion from a qualified person or organization?

As a final test, King recommends taking yourself off-line to discuss what you've learned with your own doctor.

"Before you act on anything, bring it to your physician to look it over," he said. "You can educate your doctor about pages that have good data, and they have a chance to say, 'No, this isn't really accurate.' You can learn from each other."

King has seen the impact of the Internet's health information on his own practice, and it's generally been positive.

"It helps educate my patients and direct their questions," he said. "Under the constraints we have now, we [doctors] can't spend as much time with patients as we used to. This way, they can come in well-educated and ready to discuss their condition. At the end of the visit, I might also refer them to a Web site for more information."

Powell rattled off a list of things that medical Web sites are great for: helping consumers decide when they need to see a doctor; giving them information on selecting the right physician; showing them how to evaluate the treatment they receive; providing questions to ask about an invasive procedure or surgery.

But in the end, King said, your doctor is always going to be able to provide the best assessment of your health.

"I think the computer and the Internet is an excellent tool," he said. "But that's all it is. It doesn't take the place of the relationship between the physician and the patient. Don't think this can become a replacement for your health-care provider."

More information

To learn more about evaluating health information on the Internet, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

SOURCES: Don Powell, president and CEO, American Institute for Preventive Medicine, Farmington Hills, Mich.; Jim King, M.D., FAAFP, family practice doctor, Selmer, Tenn., and president, American Academy of Family Physicians

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