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Search Topic 32:

Online Health Information

Web Search Guides

by Judy Bates, Associate Editor

I. Overview of Topic

Today, online health information is one of the Web's biggest businesses. There are now over 20,000 health information websites, reaching well over 200 million individual users a month - that's almost double the number of users just one year ago

Of course, Internet research is no substitute for visiting your doctor. Even so, online health information can empower you as a patient and greatly enhance your understanding of health issues, as long as you stick to established, reputable sites.

Interestingly, online health information has become an international phenomenon. According to a study conducted by Harris Interactive, a global research and consulting firm, online health information research has become commonplace not only in the U.S. but also in Europe and Asia. In fact, millions of people worldwide have developed into "cyberchondriacs," according the the study. Cyberchondriacs are people who go online several times a week to research medical information or health information, typically visiting the same two or three favorite mega-sites again and again.

But usually, people become cyberchondriacs only only when they or a family member have been diagnosed with a disease or condition. According to the Harris Interactive study, 82 percent of online health information seekers in the United States are researching specific conditions, not looking for wellness information or general medical advice.

Evaluating Online Health Information Resources

Dr. Tom Ferguson, a medical doctor and publisher of "The Ferguson Report," an online newsletter for doctors, suggests you ask these questions in evaluating any online health information website:

  • Who is the site's sponsor or owner. Some sites are primarily commercial. Others are backed by special-interest groups promoting an agenda. Check the About Us section of the website for more information.
  • What are the credentials of the website's authors? Is it scientifically-based or produced by medical professionals? Does the site peddle "miracle" cures? Visit for current info on health frauds and myths.
  • Is the information timely? This is especially important if you're researching medical tests, technology or treatment options. Always look for dates posted as to when revisions were made.
  • Look for sites with the "HON" seal, indicating a promise to maintain standards set by the Health on the Net Foundation. Also, note that many major online health information sites participate in an accreditation program called HiEthics, conducted by The American Accreditation Health Care Commission, verifiable through its website.

The Big Three Online Health Information Websites

Following are three major, reputable online health information sites - no charlatans, quacks or snake-oil salesmen here.

This is a site you've probably already heard of and may have already used. WebMD generated almost $300 million in revenues last year, nearly all of it from advertising. It is currently the Internet's largest online health information site and gets over 12% of all health-information traffic. It's a great starting point for your research on almost any health topic. For example, the Disease and Conditions section lets you focus on a specific health problem. Or you can search topics by channels, such as Health and Wellness, Newly Diagnosed, or Living with Illness. However, as you read, notice that some sections are sponsored and may be commercially-slanted.

This site, affiliated with the world-famous Mayo Clinic, is the second-most-used online health information website. Here you'll find hundreds of in-depth and authoritative articles, an index of diseases, a variety of Condition Centers (for example, Alzheimer's), and Healthy Living Centers (such as Women's Health). To research specific medical tests and treatments, consult the Health Decisions Guide. Mayo Clinic specialists provide most of the content for this huge site.

Founded by Steve Case, who previously founded America Online, Revolution Health is an amazingly comprehensive online health information source. Registration is necessary but this merely requires that you provide your email address and set up a password. For this small investment in time you will have doctor-finding and rating tools, hospital comparative rating charts, disease/medication/treatment research tools, health risk assessment, exercise tracking tools, a 6-week healthy living program, many free newsletters, and much more. You can also sign up for a Premium Membership (for a fee) which provides a "Health Assistant and Advocate" to help you in dealing with virtually any type of health question or concern, from finding training options to dealing with your health insurance provider.

Other High-Quality Online Health Information Websites

As said above, there are thousands of online health information websites out there and you could spend weeks trying to investigate them all. Following are some of the best - websites often cited or recommended in authoritative health and wellness newsletters and reference sites. - Maintained by the National Library of Medicine, you can access information about more than 400 diseases and conditions, a guide to pharmaceutical drugs, links to NIH clearinghouses, and many other useful resources.

Healthfinder - This U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services site provides a gateway to more than 1,800 agencies and health organizations. Excellent resource for initial research on specific medical problems, conditions, diseases, etc. - Founded by the American Medical Association, this site provides candid, peer-reviewed articles on a wide spectrum of ailments. Not a research-oriented site, but good for overviews of disease symptoms and treatments. - Offers valuable special-category sections, for example women with disabilities and minority women's health. - Comprehensive library of children's health articles - Portal to more than 40 Issues and Disorders Centers and more than 25 Information Centers, including Marriage and Family Therapy and Child and Adolescent Development. - News about traveler's health, threatening diseases, immunizations, bicycle safety, dog bites, foodborne illnesses, AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, and much more. - Original articles written by editorial personnel at CBS and Medscape (a medical information publishing company). Provides online news-oriented health information categorized in three sections: Diseases and Conditions, Family Health, and Healthy Lifestyle. - Consumer-oriented site covering A-Z health-related topics (Acne, Allergies, Asthma, Breast Cancer, Depression...), provides a drug interaction checker, diet and weight loss resource center, a health news channel, and recently has added a Symptom Search Tool.

Also note that Yahoo and both offer popular health channels containing voluminous detailed health/wellness information.

Storing Your Health Information Online

Several major online companies are developing programs which allow you to store your personal patient records online where they can be conveniently accessed by you or your health professionals. Revolution Health (see above) and Microsoft (through its HealthVault service) are already providing this service, and Google has announced it is in the process of developing a similar service. However, you should realize that, whereas medical providers are required to protect medical records under HIPPA, this federal privacy law does not apply to health records stored online. So this new service, useful as it may be in allowing you to easily provide your medical records and treatment histories to doctors and hospitals, might subject you to a variety of potential data breaches, such as hackers or court subpoenas. Something to think about before rushing to sign up for this "newest new thing" in the online health information field!

That's it - our ten minutes are up! (OK, maybe twelve or thirteen if you're a slow reader.) Below is a listing of Web resources to help you continue your research on online health information..

II. For Additional Research

This Section provides reviews and recommendations of Web sites and other online resources

VitalSavings by Aetna

VitalSavings by Aetna is a discount program (not insurance) on dental, pharmacy and vision care. It's available to individuals and familes. According to the company, there are no deductables, exclusions for pre-existing conditions, waiting periods, necessary referrals, etc., as are typical of insurance programs. Savings are on the order of 10% to 40%, depending on the type of care provided. Also covers LASIK surgery. Looks like good, reasonably-priced supplementary health coverage from a reputable company.

Other Health Service/Product Suppliers

  -  Online Drug Store

AmericaRx is an online American-based drugstore offering convenience and low prices on just about anything you'd buy at your neighborhood bricks-and-mortar drugstore, such as household needs, vitamins, OTC medicines, personal hygiene, eye and ear care, etc.

  -  Medical Guides to Diseases & Treatment Options

Medifocus offers medical guides on all major diseases and conditions. Each guide describes specific illnesses, leading physicians, researchers, and centers of clinical knowledge. Each disease/condition is covered by a separate guide.

  -  Cholesterol-lowering Supplements and Information

Lipidshield offers a complete program for lowering cholesterol.

  -  Online Contact Lens Supplier

VisionDirect guarantees lowest prices (and no shipping charges on orders for $99 or more) on all top brands of contact lenses and accessories.

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Recommended Reading


III.Discussion Group


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