By Margaret Kertess
Consumer health information is exploding on the Internet. Whatever your health interest or concern, from AIDS to alternative medicine, diet to drugs, wellness to women's health care, there is something for you on the World Wide Web.
The hundreds of web sites with eye-popping graphics are attractive to those trying to take our health into our own hands. But how do you judge a web site's reliability and objectivity? How do you find accurate and useful information? There is no screening or censorship on the web and many sites contain false or misleading information.
Starting Your Search
To make the best use of the web as a tool for healthier living, start your search with a reputable, university-based site such as the School of Public Health's "Consumer Health Resources" site (at http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/PUBL/consumer.html). Reputable sites often list one another as links, but do not assume you will get reliable information from every site you reach by following the links.
When you first access a new site, consider whether it is the product of an educational institution (look for ".edu" in the web address), a non-profit organization (".org"), a governmental agency (".gov") or a commercial enterprise (".com"). Read the site's mission statement. If the sponsor is not identified, be very skeptical of the information provided.
What to Watch For
Given the global reach of the Internet and the low cost to create a site, the web can be a place for anyone interested in pushing dubious medicine. Nevertheless, there are ways to help assure that the information you are getting is reliable.
In the February 1997 issue of Consumer Reports, the article "Finding Medical Help Online" warns consumers to be wary of any health information promising to treat an impossibly long list of diseases and of out-of-date information in quickly changing areas of medicine such as AIDS drugs or mammography.
Red flags for unreliable information or "junk science," as identified by the Food and Nutrition Science Alliance (a group of food and health organizations), include tips that promise a quick fix, claims that sound too good to be true and medical advice based on a single study.
To check the accuracy of health information, look for corroborating sources. You might run a search at a library on the medical literature database Medline, or check with a health professional. Beware of heeding anecdotal evidence too quickly.
Trust your instincts, no matter how many awards the web page has received. Remember, anyone with a computer and a modem can put up a web site. Bold graphics and bright colors indicate web-savviness, but not necessarily health wisdom.
Using Your Common Sense
To be a savvy health consumer on the web, surf with restraint. Locate a couple of dependable resources and use them to explore the health issues of interest to you. Do not make treatment or lifestyle changes based solely on material you find on the Internet. Heed the disclaimer on every reputable health-based site saying that material you find on the web is not intended to diagnose, treat or provide a second opinion on any health problem or disease. See your health care provider for specific medical assistance.
In short, enjoy the wide variety of materials and viewpoints available on the web, but read with great caution.
For More Help...
UHS Self-Care Resource Center has additional information on how to access health-related information on the web. It is located on the second floor of Tang Center, 2222 Bancroft Way. The hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday during the academic year. Call 642-7202 for information.
Campus websites of possible interest include:
Ä the faculty/staff website at http://www.uhs.berkeley.edu/FacStaff
Ä the health and safety information website at http://www.ehs.berkeley.edu/
Online consumer resources on health topics include http://www.colorado.edu/wardenburg/Links/links.html, a user friendly connection to quality consumer health resources.
Margaret Kertess analyzes claims data for university's workers' compensation and vocational rehabilitation unit and enjoys surfing the web.
Next Month's Topic: Menopause. To suggest future Health Beat topics, e-mail us at hmatters@uclink. berkeley.edu