Video: Internet diagnosis

By Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 8/22/2006 5:36:27 PM ET 2006-08-22T21:36:27
COMMENTARY

Internet healthcare sites are a hypochondriac’s dream come true.  Any sore throat or sniffle can become a flesh eating bacterium if you click the right links on the symptoms chart.

For this reason, doctors often bemoan sites like Dr.Koop.com and WebMD.  Patients come in for a visit with a completely far-fetched idea about what ails them.

But, on the contrary, these sites are also making us much more informed in a very positive way.  In an age when the mighty HMO keeps us waiting for hours for human contact—if you get any at all—the Web can be a great place for the little tidbits and tips doctors just don’t bother with anymore.

And the health sites have evolved.  A few years back they were little more than online encyclopedias.  You could type in “diabetes” and get a list of symptoms and treatments.

Nowadays, people want more.  They are looking for the 2.0 version of healthcare- online communities for day-to-day advice.

“If you’re a mom and you have a kid with diabetes, you may first think ‘how am I going to find a babysitter to give a shot to my kid while I’m out,’” said Bill Allman, general manager of an online health site company called Healthcentral Network.

It’s that kind of information on coping and managing that the HMOs, and even most doctors, just don’t help with.

Sites like Dr.Koop.com go that extra mile, offering podcasts and blogs dealing with real people, problems and solutions.

But before you go on your online health odyssey, there a few things you need to know.

Not all sites are created equal.  First, there are three basic kinds of websites: dot gov, dot org, and dot com.

The government sites like the CDC are rarely as flashy as the others.  Lots of basic, useful information, and great explanations of problems, but don’t expect frills.

The org sites are nonprofits or charities like the American Cancer Society.  These tend to focus on a single disease or discipline and have lots of information, but also a sales pitch.  Charities earn money from donations, after all.

On the flip side, the commercial sites make all their dough from advertising.  As ad executives like to target their dollars to specific audiences, health sites are a great place to advertise pharmaceuticals.

When you’re perusing a health care site, make sure that all the ads are clearly labeled “advertisement” or “sponsored message.”  You don’t want advice on pain relieving tips from a site paid for by Tylenol.

Current news is also a good clue that a site is legitimate.  For example, today a big story is a study that finds that use of the acne drug Accutane could be more dangerous than doctors originally thought.  That story will be prominent at sites like WebMD and Healthcentral.com, but nowhere to be found on a page that is just a front for a new antacid.

Incidentally, the Medical Library Association provides a ranking of the best health Websites.  The government sites are always at the top of the charts.

And remember that no Web site is a replacement for seeing your doctor if you are ill.

Happy hunting, and stay healthy.

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