Click your way to better health

According to a report published earlier this year by the Pew Internet Project, 80 percent of Internet users have searched for health information online. Looking up health-related topics is the third most common use of the Internet. The most popular types of searches are for specific diseases and medical problems, treatments and procedures, and to obtain information about doctors and hospitals. Women, especially those with children, are the group most likely to use the internet to find health information, with the least likely users being minorities, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

Consumers who access the Internet to educate themselves about specific health topics or to find general health and wellness information should proceed with caution. There is a plethora of good information available, but there is also a great deal of misinformation floating around on the web. Anyone who has $10 to purchase a domain name and rudimentary computer skills can put up a website and post anything they’d like, true or not. Many websites that claim to offer health information are, in reality, intended primarily to sell expensive programs and useless gadgets to vulnerable people.

Three good sites to consider when looking for health information online are:

WebMD (webmd.com) — This site is easy to navigate and has a depth of well-researched information. You can search for specific conditions or by symptoms, and the site includes a thorough medical dictionary. WebMD does display ads, however, so click with caution so that you don’t get pulled away from research and into shopping mode.

Mayo Clinic (mayoclinic.com) — One of the most widely-respected large medical clinics in the world, Mayo Clinic offers comprehensive health information on its website, written in a manner that the average person can understand it. This site also displays ads, but they’re not obtrusive.

Cleveland Clinic (clevelandclinic.org) — Like Mayo, the Cleveland Clinic website offers quality health information that is easy to find and understand. Aside from promoting their own facility and health care providers, there are no ads on this site.

Use well-regarded websites like these to educate yourself and to get information that will help you prepare for doctor’s appointments and be ready to ask pertinent questions. Never use the Internet to self-diagnose or treat anything other than the most basic ailments or injuries.

One downside of doing medical research online is that it’s easy to work yourself into a minor panic by reading about all the possibilities related to even the most straightforward symptom. Look long enough at any site for information on almost any condition and, if you’re the type to worry at all, you may convince yourself you’re seriously ill when, in reality, you have only a minor problem that can be easily addressed by your doctor. There is a saying in medicine that goes, “When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.” This means that most symptoms are more likely to be the result of a common diagnosis than they are to be connected to something rare and exotic. So, even though the very bottom of the web page says that your headache could be a brain tumor, take comfort in the fact that it’s most likely something much less dramatic. That said, always seek advice from your health care provider for diagnosis and treatment of any symptom that you’re concerned about.

The web offers a quick and easy way to get information about health care providers. Go to the American Board of Medical Specialties website (abms.org) to find out if a doctor you’re considering going to for care is board certified in his or her specialty, and check out a practitioner’s licensing status and search for past state board disciplinary actions at the Colorado Medical Board website (dora.state.co.us/Medical/consumer.htm).

The Internet can also be helpful for patients seeking connection with others who have illnesses or conditions like their own. Online support groups are available for individuals with cancer, diabetes, infertility, AIDS, and many other health issues, as well as for those who wish to stop smoking or overcome other addictions. Use these resources for peer support only, however, not in an effort to diagnose or treat yourself.

If you’re interested in losing weight, one fun website that may help you stay motivated is SparkPeople (sparkpeople.com). Here, you tell the site your goal weight and the date by which you’d like to achieve that weight, and it calculates your daily calorie limit. You can then track your food intake and exercise each day until you achieve your goal. The site will also connect you with support teams of peers who are also on a path to better health and fitness.

Used wisely, the Internet can be an excellent resource for anyone seeking to better understand health and wellness. Click your way to quality websites for the best information, and — as is the case in most areas of life — remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Southwest Health Notes is a public service feature provided by Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, Colorado. The information provided herein is not intended as patient-specific medical advice or as a substitute for consultation with your personal health care provider.

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