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How to Find Reliable Health Information on the Web

By Christina Elston


The Web puts a world of health information at your fingertips, but health-care providers urge parents to talk with their doctor before following any family health advice they find online.


You're cooking a new chicken recipe for dinner, and you need to know the amount of carbohydrates in each serving so that your 16-year-old son - who has type 1 diabetes - can accurately set his insulin pump. Do you call the family doctor? Grab your Atkins book?


Like many moms today, Andrea Shahmardian, of Fort Collins, Colo., jumps online to the message boards at the American Diabetes Association Web site www.diabetes.org, where other parents of diabetic kids are ready to help.


"You can ask anything on those message boards and get immediate responses," she says. "There are parents there who have been dealing with diabetes way longer than I have."


Surfing the Web for health information - everything from advice on treating a child's mild bout of diarrhea to research on a new cancer treatment - is common practice for many of us. Eight out of every 10 Americans online use the Internet to gather health information for themselves and their families, according to Michael Smith, M.D., medical editor in chief of the popular WebMD site www.webmd.com. But finding complete, reliable answers to your health queries isn't as easy as the online "search and click" trend makes it appear.


There's a glut of inaccurate information online - and it can lead parents down some confusing, misleading paths, says Tanya Remer Altmann, M.D., a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) committee on media. "Parents see articles online claiming that vaccines are linked to autism, meningitis and other diseases," she says. "They say that they read that sugar can cause AD/HD in their child, but there is no scientific evidence of this."


"I do think it's great that parents want to be involved, and want more information about their child's health," says Altmann, "but they need to be careful about where they're looking for that information."


So, when clicking your way down the health information superhighway, how do you tell the good from the bad? The dependable from the dangerous?


Checking Out Your Online Sources


When visiting specific Web sites for health information, ask yourself the following questions:





  • Where is the information coming from? Find out who is running the site you are consulting. Many sites that appear reliable at first glance prove suspicious upon closer inspection, says Paula Kitendaugh, who evaluates links for the Medline Plus site www.medlineplus.gov run by the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes for Health. If a great-looking nutrition site is funded by the Cattleman's Association, or a cold and flu site is funded by a pharmaceutical company, the information might be accurate, but it likely won't give you the whole picture.


    Look for an "About Us" or "Contact Us" page to see who operates and pays for the site. Any ads that appear within the actual content should be labeled as such. Some sites are accredited by third-party organizations, says Smith, who notes that WebMD features the logos of its accrediting organizations at the bottom of each page.



  • What type of page are you looking at? With so many different types of content online, it's important to now the difference between them. Blogs - even those posted by medical professionals - represent one person's opinion. An article from an organization like the AAP, on the other hand, represents some type of scientific consensus. Both can be valuable, as can message boards where opinions expressed are from fellow parents or patients. "A parent who has lived through the experience of having a child with colic can give other parents great advice and information," Smith says.



  • Is the information current? Look for a date either on individual pages, or somewhere on the site, telling when the information was last updated or reviewed. Click around a bit. Broken links are another indicator that a site might not be kept up to date. Even legitimate organizations sometimes lose funding for their online projects, and stop updating information, warns Kitendaugh.



  • Are the site's claims too good to be true? If a site offers magic weight loss pills, or a cure for the common cold, it probably is too good to be true, says Larry Fields, M.D., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). This is especially true if the site is the only one making these claims. Checking more than one site for a "second opinion" is always a good idea.





    "I do think it's great that parents want to be involved, and want more information about their child's health, but they need to be careful about where they're looking for that information." - Tanya Remer Altmann, M.D.,  American Academy of Pediatrics




  • What does the site want from you? Sites that ask you to pay for information - unless they are established medical journals - or are attempting to "sell" a particular type of medical product, are cause for suspicion. Sites that require you to provide personal information on a registration form before viewing content should offer a privacy policy describing what they will and won't do with that information. Beware of sites that say things like, "We share your information with companies that can provide you with useful products."


    To Surf or Not to Surf?


    While the Internet can be a source of lots of useful information, Fields stresses that it cannot turn you into a doctor. Any type of medical emergency, or even an acute health issue, requires direct medical attention rather than an online search.


    Even though it's not an emergency, "if your child is ill," Fields says, "you need to bring the child in to see a physician."


    Parents are better off using the Internet to gather recommendations for healthy living, proper diet and exercise, and illness prevention, he says. The AAFP site for patients (http://familydoctor.org)  offers a large "Healthy Living" section and a special section dedicated to "Parents and Kids."


    Altmann agrees that the Internet can do plenty of good, as long as parents rely on quality resources. "It's a great tool for parents, because any time, day or night, they can have accurate information at their fingertips," she says.


    For example, parents could visit the AAP site http://www.aap.org/ for guidelines on the type of carseat that is safest for their child. Developmental guidelines are another example of useful online information, as these can help parents determine what is "normal" for their child. These guidelines can also help parents formulate questions to discuss at their child's regular doctor's visits.


    Another useful time for parents to seek health information online is after seeing their pediatrician or other health professional.


    "Oftentimes, the visit is short and all their questions may not have been answered or the parent didn't fully understand the answers," Kitendaugh says. "Online information can be read at any time and in a less stressful environment when the information can be absorbed and processed."


    The Medline Plus site offers tutorials that walk users through audiovisual presentations on a range of topics, including tonsillectomy, influenza, diabetes and cold sores.


    For a family dealing with a chronic health issue, online resources can offer background information, the latest news and support networks that connect them with other families dealing with the illness. These things can help families and doctors work more closely together, says Fields. "Educated parents are a wonderful thing," he says. "It allows you to start the conversation at a higher level."


    Finding a Surf Instructor




    If you have a complex question about a serious health issue, however, you might need help with your online search. And that help could be as near as your local library.


    "Public librarians are pretty skilled at looking up health information," says consumer health librarian Ruti Volk, manager of the Patient Education Resource Center at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. You can also find your nearest consumer health library - dedicated to helping the public access health information - on the Medline Plus Web site, in the "Other Resources" section of www.medlineplus.gov.


    Consumer health libraries offer their services free of charge, but Volk suggests calling ahead, and arriving prepared. "It's always a good idea to compile a list of questions before you meet with the librarian," she says. "It will help the librarian understand your questions, and find the most relevant and specific information."


    Talk with Your Doctor Before You Act


    No matter which online health resources you consult, or how you found them, don't act on the information without consulting your own pediatrician first. "You want to make sure that information is applicable to your child," says Fields, who recommends printing the information and bringing it along to your appointment.


    Fields also urges that you make the appointment sooner, rather than later. "Don't put off talking to your family doctor," he advises, "just so you can do some research."


    Resources



    • The American Academy of Family Physicians - http://familydoctor.org - An all-around great site for family health questions. Covers the needs of men, women, parents, kids and seniors, as well as general tips for healthy living.
        

    • The American Academy of Pediatrics - www.aap.org - This is probably the first site to visit when looking into children's health and development issues. It runs the gamut, offering information on research, AAP policy and advice to parents.
        

    • KidsHealth - www.kidshealth.org - Established by the philanthropic Nemours Foundation, this site includes health information for parents, kids or teens.
        

    • Medline Plus - www.medlineplus.gov - A joint offering from the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, this site covers more than 700 health topics and includes interactive tutorials and links to information on ongoing studies of new medications or treatments.
        

    • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development - www.nichd.nih.gov - Offers links to health research and information on a wide variety of topics.
        



    • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control - www.cdc.gov - A top site for up-to-the-minute information and government policy on illness, health and safety, and treatment. The CDC site also offers sound, comprehensive tips and advice on a host of child and family health topics.
        

    • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - www.healthfinder.gov - Includes an A to Z index on health conditions, diseases and injuries, and a section dedicated to child health.

  • Christina Elston is the contributing health editor for United Parenting Publications.

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