by Maria LaPiana
Mar 26, 2013
12:06 PMWell, Now
You can’t shake a cough. You’re out of breath after one flight of stairs. You’ve had a headache for days—and seriously, you’re starting to worry. So, you do what millions of others do every day: search for your symptoms on Google in the hopes you’ll be able to diagnose whatever it is that ails you.
Trouble is, there are 147 conditions—from hay fever to lung cancer—associated with your symptoms, according to the immensely popular WebMD.
Looks like this may take a while.
“This is the problem I have with so many medical websites,” says Dr. Kavita Joshi, an internist with the Western Connecticut Medical Group in Monroe. “There are so many things to consider when treating someone. A physician has to observe, examine, discuss, test and diagnose. But we live in a time when everything is on speed dial. People want answers right away. And there’s a danger in trying to make a deduction based on information found online.”
This is not to say there is no value in “learning terminology, so you don’t feel completely lost when you’re talking to your doctor,” says Joshi. “When there’s a general understanding, both doctor and patient get more out of every visit.”
Joshi’s preferred websites are those affiliated with reputable health organizations and those that lead to more detailed sources of information. Hands down, she says, “the best sites are the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and NIH [National Institutes of Health], followed by those attached to a credible name—say a doctor or hospital.”
(For the record, she’s not very fond of WebMD: “It’s a little too much like Wikipedia,” she says. “There’s a lot of information that’s not attributed to anyone. There’s no accountability.”)
In addition to street cred, a health information website should be timely and continually updated to reflect the latest news and findings. A good site will use language that’s understandable (not too simplistic but not overly scientific), and offer varying levels of information, allowing users to dig deeper for more detail. Better yet, it’s got some multimedia and/or interactive components. “Symptom checkers” should choose sites that provide measured, thoughtful descriptions of medical conditions without rushing to judgment (e.g., be wary of a site that instantly links headaches to rare disorders like brain tumors).
Here are a few sites that meet our criteria for providing medical information—but remember: There is an inherent risk in self-diagnosis, and substituting an online examination for a doctor’s visit is just plain bad medicine.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov).The CDC’s home page is newsy and all business, with a focus on the latest research in health and safety, including such topics as Global Health and Emergency Preparedness & Response. Facts and figures abound (including the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) as do updates on outbreaks around the world. But the basics—easy-to-understand descriptions of diseases and conditions—are there, as well as features (women in science is one), topics of interest to specific ages and populations, and even an occasional quiz.
National Institutes of Health(nih.gov). As the nation’s medical research agency, the NIH clearly emphasizes the impact of studies, clinical trials, laboratory work and science education. Look no further if you want to know how medical research is funded, what kinds of programs are underway, and what it is that biomedical researchers do. Still, the site goes beyond research—click on the “Health Information” tab to learn more about a comprehensive list of health topics, from A (Abnormalities; see Birth Defects) to Z, well, X (X-Rays; see Diagnostic Imaging). For those who prefer talking to real people, there’s a listing of Health Information hotlines.
The Mayo Clinic (mayoclinic.com).This multifaceted site serves as an online reception desk for the Mayo Clinic itself, allowing patients to find doctors and schedule appointments at its three main hospitals and satellite locations. It’s also a valuable information source (click on “health information” in the banner) on everything from symptoms and descriptions of diseases and conditions to healthy lifestyles (with recipes) and first aid. The “Tests and Procedures” section provides detailed descriptions of diagnostic tests outlining how (and why) they are performed. Need more information? Order books and newsletters through the Mayo Clinic Store.
The Merck Manual (merckmanuals.com). Designed for health-care professionals, this online version of the world’s most widely used medical textbook provides a link to its sister site for consumers called the “Home Health Handbook” (click the red box in the banner). It may not be sexy, but it’s easy to navigate and offers several ways to research diseases and disorders. It includes anatomical drawings, a guide to pronunciation and sections on common medical tests, drug names both trade and generic, as well as a comprehensive list of resources for help and more information. Merck & Co., Inc., by the way, is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.
American Cancer Society (cancer.org). Obviously, this is not a generic health information site, but it is a textbook example of how to present the facts about a very complex subject—in this case, all 76 types of cancer—in an extremely organized manner. The hardworking “Learn About Cancer” tab directs you to cancer basics, news and features, expert blogs and stories of hope. The site is user-friendly in that it includes a wealth of information on prevention, as well as support and treatment for cancer patients. It’s topical, too, including the latest developments in research as well as ways to get involved.
CONNECTICUT HOSPITALS Connecticut has approximately 50 hospitals, one of which (Yale-New Haven) is nationally ranked as a “Best Hospital,” according to U.S. News & World Report. Six other hospitals meet that magazine’s standards for “strong performance within the state.” All seven websites provide information unique to their hospitals, including signature services as well as appointment scheduling and general-health features and links. They are:
• Yale-New Haven Hospital (ynhh.org).Not surprisingly, this preeminent teaching hospital’s sophisticated site places a premium on information; for more details on all services and specialties, including the latest research, go to “Our Services.”
• Danbury Hospital (danburyhospital.org). This site is more focused on services than general health information, but the “Screening, Testing and Prevention” page (under “Health and Wellness”) can be useful in determining what steps to take in diagnosing and treating an illness.
• Waterbury Hospital (waterburyhospital.org). Links to health news from major media outlets including CNN, The New York Times and NPR (plus the NIH) are readily available on this site. Go to “Hospital Services, Health Center Library,” then “Health News.”
• Bridgeport Hospital (bridgeporthospital.org). One of the best local online sources for health information, this site’s “Health and Wellness” page is chock-full of news, articles, quizzes and calculators, recipes and links to newsletters—this one is a gem.
• Hartford Hospital (harthosp.org).This site takes health information seriously. Search conditions, procedures, medications and more, including a medical dictionary, interactive tools (check out the anatomy navigator) and links to natural and alternative treatments.
• Middlesex Hospital (middlesexhospital.org). Go to “Your Health” for this site’s compilation of health information; it’s not very extensive, but it includes the basics on conditions, procedures and medication, plus a symptom checker and other interactive tools.
• Norwalk Hospital (norwalkhospital.org). While its home page is fussier than most, this site is well worth the time spent navigating it. The best pages for archived health information and the latest in research and findings: “Health Library” and “Today’s Health News.”