Does a double click a day keep the doctor away? Web sites health professionals recommend

From information about herbal remedies and megavitamins to chats about every condition under the sun, on-line prescriptions and virtual medical journals to cyberconsultations with e-docs, health resources on the Web are proliferating.

According to a recent survey by Forrester Research, Inc., consumers, frustrated by decreasing face-to-face time with busy doctors and limited insurance coverage, are flocking to the Web for information and remedies.

Consumers are reaching into their pockets to the change-jangling tune of a projected $22 billion in on-line health-related transactions by 2004. How are patients and professionals using the Web, and is it good for our health?

Lorraine Beers, family nurse practitioner with the Foreign Travel Clinic in Traverse City, uses the Web quite a bit in her practice.

“We give every patient a printout of the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) guidelines for travel. We recommend if patients have a computer at home, and most do, that they do as much research as possible before they get here.” As a result, “It does save time,” she said. “People are already knowledgeable, so they come in with better-formulated questions.”

Beers has also seen “interesting” information brought in by patients. But she sees that information as a useful tool. “We can use it to help dispel myths,” she said.

To avoid finding “interesting,” but not necessarily accurate, information, Beers recommends starting with a known source, like CDC’s site (www.cdc.gov), then branching out.

Beers also finds e-mail helpful. “A lot of foreign travel clinics have added e-mail. If you have questions about treatment while overseas, you can generally get a response right away.”

Other Web resources Beers sees as helpful to her patients are on-line medical and travel journals, literature searches through MEDLINE, and even chat rooms where patients can read about others’ travel experiences.

Dr. Robert Barnes, a gastroenterologist in Traverse City, tends to steer his patients away from chat rooms.

“Some patients get into chat sites where the most severe cases are described. They come back to me scared to death.”

Instead, he provides his patients with educational materials and recommends organizational Web sites, like the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (www.ccfa.org).

Julie Botsford, Pharm. D., clinical pharmacy specialist at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, uses the Internet “all the time professionally,” to keep up with current information like FDA drug withdrawals and weekly updates containing links to medical journal articles on diabetes care, one of her areas of interest.

Botsford also uses drugstore sites, like www.drugstore.com, to read package labeling on over-the-counter products or to get information on herbal remedies. “The amount of information out there (on the Web) is incredible.”

A 1999 survey conducted by the Health On the Net Foundation supports her comment: 79 percent of all respondents said they use the Web to seek information on pharmaceutical drugs and 18 percent of North American respondents claimed to buy drugs on line.

“On-line pharmacies are the newest issue for consumers; there are steps you can take to be sure they’re legitimate,” Botsford said. “The big one is association with a traditional bricks and mortar pharmacy.”

And the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, www.nabp.net, certifies pharmacies. “It’s helpful for consumers to check legitimacy,” she said.

It’s also important to compare prices, she adds. “There seems to be a lot of variability. The Internet is not necessarily a cost savings.”

Though Botsford is Net-savvy, she still has concerns.

“If you have questions, you don’t have the one-to-one dialogue with a pharmacist. And if a person is getting drugs here, there, and everywhere, there can be allergies and interactions. Consumers have to be sure the pharmacist has all of their information. There’s just so much to taking medications correctly,” she said.

Similarly, “It is empowering for patients to access information on the Internet, but nothing should replace the relationship a patient has with his or her physician,” said Barb Gordon-Kessel, marketing director at Munson Medical Center.

In March, the Munson Health Care (MHC) web site received over 7,000 visits from non-employees, many for “information on our health education offerings as well as information on physicians,” said Gordon-Kessel.

The site has also been a useful recruitment tool, generating in the neighborhood of 100 e-mails per month regarding employment information.

MHC is currently conducting a strategic evaluation of its site. “One of the key goals in our future Internet strategy is helping people access trustworthy health care information,” said Gordon-Kessel.

Safety Net

How do you discern trustworthy health care information on the Web?

• Be wary of product claims, such as “amazing” or “miraculous,” as well as new or experimental treatments.

• Reputable sites will have privacy policies posted conspicuously. Read them and make sure they’re acceptable to you before providing personal data.

• Check the dates of all postings and news releases to be sure information is current.

• “Experts” should be identified by name and list their credentials and even contact information.

• Web site advertising should be separated and distinguishable from content.

• Know whose site you’re on. Clicking on links for additional information can take you to a completely different site. Always note the sponsor, and agenda, of the site you’re visiting.

Healthy Sites

www.nih.gov/health – National Institutes of Health

www.healthfinder.gov – U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

www.americanheart.org – American Heart Association

www.cancer.org – American Cancer Society

www.oncolink.com – Univ. of Pennsylvania Cancer Center

www.mayohealth.org – Mayo Clinic

www.nlm.hih.gov – National Institutes of Health MEDLINE literature database

www.cdc.gov/travel – Centers for Disease Control travel resources

www.hon.ch – Health on the Net Foundation

www.drkoop.com – A commercial site owned by Dr.koop.com

www.webmd.com – A commercial site owned by Healtheon/WebMD

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