Monday, December 1, 2008

Cyberchondria: The Internet and Health Information

Do you use the internet to find health information? If you do, you may be a cyberchondriac. Cyberchondria is a new word according to this article ,
" Microsoft researchers coined the term after finding that thanks to a plethora of online medical information, more and more people think they are sick."

The article goes on to say that,
"Information can assist people who are not health-care professionals to better understand health and disease, and to provide them with feasible explanations for symptoms," said the researchers in a report. "However, the Web has the potential to increase the anxieties of people who have little or no medical training, especially when Web search is employed as a diagnostic procedure."

It looks like the key point there is that using the web to diagnose an illness can cause a lot of problems. Even doctors can hear hoofbeats and think zebra instead of horse, but it's a much more common problem for the layman. That refers to the tendency to think that symptoms point to something really rare and serious rather than to the more common cause of the symptoms. For example, a websurfer may conclude that a headache is a sign of a brain tumor rather than just a garden variety stress headache. Add into that the effect of watching TV programs like "House" where the diagnosis is always something really arcane and websurfers may easily jump to the wrong conclusions.

The cure for this cyberchondria is to start with your doctor. Once you have a diagnosis, be sure to use reliable resources to research the disease or condition. Many library patrons come to the Reference Desk to ask for help with medical questions. The medical books in the library have all been reviewed and selected, for the most part, with an eye for accuracy and helpfulness to the layman. Sometimes, bowing to popular demand, we buy a health bestseller which may contain dubious information. The medical reference section has the most unbiased health information in the library's book collection. The Merck Manual of Medical Information (Ref 610 MER) and the Johns Hopkins White Papers (Ref 616 JOH) are two good places to start your research.
To find medical information online, the Reference Staff has bookmarked authoritative health websites to use and is trained to be skeptical of websites that seem to be primarily a marketing tool for online quacks and opportunists.

Here is a list of websites we use for medical information and links to a few articles about choosing reliable health information. One more caveat: make sure you have the correct spelling of the condition or drug you are researching.

The first stop on the web for the BHPL Reference Staff is usually the National Library of Medicine's website,
This website will take you to articles from The Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, various medical schools, hospital centers and universities. It has links to the the National Institutes of Health and other U.S. government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture (for nutrition.)
Notice that many of these websites are dot govs or dot edus, in other words, they are government or university websites, not dot coms, which essentially are commercial,profit-making websites.

The American Cancer Society
Top 100 Health Websites from CAPHIS
Clinical Trials
Healthy New Jersey from UMDNJ, the state medical schools
Household Products Database from NIH
MyPyramidTracker to plan your food intake -for free, no ads for supplements or other dubious or expensive promotions.
Sloan Kettering's website about herbal supplement efficacy and potentially harmful interactions with prescribed drugs.
The ABMS, American Board of Medical Specialties, list of Board Certified doctors

And finally, an entertaining, thought-provoking, possibly controversial website
Quackwatch. You may not agree with the website author, Stephen Barrett, MD, but at the very least you will learn to be very skeptical of medical information you hear about from friends, read online or see on television.

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