Nursing Professor Offers Advice for Navigating Medical Web Sites

Nov. 21, 2007 — When Sarah Farrell first began evaluating health care Web sites about a decade ago, the results were decidedly mixed.

"I was demonstrating what the Web could do with a group of students, and we searched for treatments for depression. The first treatment that popped up used yams," she said.

Times and the Web have changed. Farrell, a nursing professor who conducts research on the impact of technology on health care in underserved rural areas, believes that the health care information on the Web has improved dramatically, largely because of improvements in government sites, such as MedlinePlus from the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health.

In fact, Farrell believes that important advances in bringing health care information to rural communities could be made by developing and expanding the use of computer kiosks at grocery stores, gasoline stations and churches to provide greater access to medical information.

"In the past, it was typical for individuals who live very far from major hospital centers to purchase a medical encyclopedia once a year," she said. "The Internet makes it possible for people in these areas to get up-to-date information without that expense."

A 2006 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 113 million Americans, or 80 percent of Internet users, have searched for information on at least one of 17 different health topics.

That does not surprise Farrell, who teaches a seminar title "Be the Spider, Not the Fly," which covers ways to evaluate emerging technologies for health care, including blogs and wikis.

"Studies show that one of the primary reasons people go to the Internet is for mental health problems," said Farrell. "This allows them to ask questions that you either can't or don't want to ask of someone in person. The Internet has opened up a place where people can easily find out about stress, anxiety, depression, without feeling that they're alone."

But, Farrell warned, people seeking health care information on the Web need to be discriminating about their Internet use and offers a series of five tips for effective health care browsing:

1. Choose the .gov and .edu sites first. Sites that are run by either the government or educational institutions present data and information without bias. If you search for a topic with Google, add .gov or .edu to the search terms — for instance, "depression and .edu."

2. Be cautious about the .com sites. They are often more graphically appealing and many try to be balanced, but they almost always have particular products to sell. In particular be wary of the pop-ups that point to a specific drug. 

3. Avoid the tools that ask for a series of symptoms and provide an apparently definitive self-diagnosis.

4. Know who is providing the advice that you are receiving since some sites include message board-type services in which other users are offering their recommendations based on treatment they've received. Determine when you want information and when you want support.

5. Never use the Web as a substitute for consulting your personal health care provider. Information that you find on the Internet should be shared with your provider.