How a smart internet search can augment your doctor's diagnosis
May 15, 1999
By Kathy Yakal
Several years ago, my husband had a series of agonizing headaches. They would strike for an hour or so each day. His doctor took X-rays and pronounced them sinus headaches, but the antibiotics and pain relievers he prescribed had no effect.
The doc stuck by his diagnosis. During the unbearable attacks, my husband started throwing things.
Those were the days before we had access to the Internet, but we did have online medical information via services like CompuServe and Genie. A search on his symptoms provided a match fairly quickly: cluster headaches, a rare but treatable headache syndrome.
Once we faxed the doctor an article we had found online, he agreed to write a prescription for oxygen, said to be the fastest, most effective treatment.
Today, millions of consumers get similar help from the myriad medical sites on the Internet. Just as you should never diagnose yourself by perusing the Reader's Digest, you should not use these Websites as a substitute for your doctor.
That said, the sites are great for researching possible diagnoses, learning more about a diagnosis and about medications, and as a virtual support group that would be hard to find locally. To help you use these resources, Barron's checked out the health-related Internet sites that were most heavily trafficked during the month of March.
As you might expect, America Online's Health Channel attracted more than double the monthly visitors that its nearest competitor did. AOL's amalgam of health-related resources is much like any other area on the service. Which is to say, there's something for almost everyone. The problem is finding it.
Some of the information is proprietary content limited to AOL subscribers, while other resources sit on Websites linked to AOL. AOL offers all of the types of help that dedicated medical Websites do, including articles and other reference materials, support groups, a drug database, medical publications, information from medical organizations, plus health tips and interactive tools.
AOL's more innovative features include free health-related homepages for members and one-on-one chat sessions with a doctor.
Speaking of doctors, a pretty prominent one hosts one of the best sites we found. It's also among the most popular. This one was started by Dr. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General known for his Abe Lincoln beard and his frank advice. Just head to http://www.drkoop.com and click on one of the content topics on the opening page.
They range from prostate cancer to osteoporosis to multiple sclerosis. Under each category you'll find links to chat rooms and message boards, news stories and reference materials. Many of the site's resources deal not only with diagnosis and treatment of disorders, but with prevention. There is also information about online prescriptions, insurance and doing further research via online encyclopedias. Dr. Koop's site hosts one of the best drug interaction checkers we've seen online.
Our biggest gripe with the drkoop.com site is that its pages load slowly. For people who suffer from chronic health conditions, the place to go is Mediconsult.com. It's primarily a reference library of articles and other medical reference materials, and it looks it.
A medical Website needn't sport dancing bears and circus music to entice users. Medicine is a fairly serious topic, after all. But Mediconsult.com (http://www.Mediconsult.com/) is so graphically bland that it is best suited to consumers who have specific topics in mind and want to zero in on their research quickly. To that end, it supplies additional resources of its own, as well as links to related sites, like a free weekly newsletter, support groups and up-to-date information on clinical drug trials.
Another good location for serious medical research is healthanswers.com (http://www.healthanswers.com). Information is presented in more of a medical-reference book fashion than sites that use a chatty, magazine-style format. That said, the site's design is attractive, and navigation easy. Click on a category, then a condition, and the page displays a general description along with other defining elements, such as symptoms, tests and complications.
One of the site's best features is its database of symptoms. Click on one, and you'll get a list of links for maladies that exhibit that particular warning sign. You can also browse through the site's various databases of information, such as first aid, medical tests, diseases, news and medical associations.
Some sites provide information about medical disorders, but also emphasize wellness and fitness issues, presenting themselves in an easy-listening, Today show kind of format. Two such sites are thriveonline.com (http://www.thriveonline.com/ and onhealth.com http://www.onhealth.com. OnHealth excels at blending information about serious health topics with coverage of less-weighty wellness and fitness issues.
A recent featured story was titled, "Bye-Bye Belly." Most of the scientific information is presented in language easily understandable to laypeople. The site's resources include comprehensive databases of drugs and conditions, a searchable medical dictionary, indexes of herbs and allergy information, guides to supplements and alternative practices, reports on timely topics, and an especially useful interactive tool: a personalized e-mail service that sends you articles related to your specified health interests.
OnHealth tosses in live and archived videos of actual surgical procedures, but our PCs just can't handle this kind of visual presentation well. If you want to see surgery, watch The Learning Channel. Another of the most visited sites in recent months, www.thriveonline.com, mixes pure science with pop culture.
Recent front-page stories provided insights on how to ride a bike uphill and how to tone your abs, while relationship therapist Delilah answered the burning question, "What do women look for in a man?" This People-magazine-meets-Lancet approach somehow works on the World Wide Web, though it would be difficult, if not impossible, to pull off a print publication or on a PBS show. On sites like Thrive, you can easily ignore the fluff and head for the meaty stuff, or vice versa. You're not paying for it, after all.
Thrive attempts to cover more ground than many other Websites, which may be one key to its popularity. It divvies up its content into five broad categories: diet, sports, medical, fitness and passion. Choose a category and a topic of interest, and Thrive opens a page that lays out your options cleanly. If you select asthma in the medical section, you can connect with other asthma sufferers via message boards, use tools like worksheets and take quizzes, view pollen maps and forecasts, and explore the site's many databases.
You can request fact sheets on symptoms, tests or drugs, as well as articles from magazines, newspapers and medical journals. Fees are charged for extensive searches. Thrive tailors its resources to appeal to all ages, which means your asthma research includes an invitation to play with Bronkie, the inhaler-using dinosaur.
With a name like Mayo, you'd think you'd be looking at an exceptional Website. But Mayo Health Oasis (http://www.mayohealth.org/) was the biggest disappointment in this group of high-traffic sites. The Mayo Website is primarily a repository for articles produced by Mayo Clinic physicians and writers. But the site has high credibility, and it can be a good resource if you're looking for up-to-date medical information on a variety of conditions, ranging from arthritis to diabetes to Parkinson's.
Another familiar name in health care, Johns Hopkins University Hospital & Health System, has teamed up with Aetna U.S. Healthcare to host intelihealth.com (http://www.intelihealth.com/). This is an excellent site in terms of the content it offers up, though it lacks tools like a symptom database, drug-interaction checker and, most significantly, discussion boards. The site's resources are pretty standard fare: a searchable drug database, special "condition centers" and "zones" that focus on specific disorders or processes. Some categories are targeted specifically to men's and women's health issues.
Two final sites that hosted enough monthly visitors to appear on our radar screen are America's Health Network (http://www.ahn.com/) and Medscape (http://www.medscape.com/). Neither offers anything exceptional to seekers of health and wellness information.
Medscape bills itself as a resource for both professionals and consumers, but its dearth of information and tools for consumers makes it look more like a dry doctor's journal. Oddly enough, though, you can track your stock portfolio there. I guess that says something about doctors' interests these days.
America's Health Network suffers from some technical glitches. Some pages were inaccessible, and the site is light on real health information and heavy on lightweight, techie tools, such as videos of medical procedures, a third-grade-level anatomy tutorial, greeting cards, even a medical record form for your pets.
If you spend much time on any of these sites, you'll discover a number of things. You'll find there's a lot of conflicting medical information out there. You'll come across numerous medical conditions you'd never heard of. You may even begin suffering from first-year medical-student syndrome, feeling like you've got every third disease you read about.
Still, you'll find tremendous resources to help you at many stages of most medical conditions. You can try to match your symptoms to a disorder while you're waiting for a doctor's appointment, and do informational research on your own if a diagnosis proves difficult. Once diagnosed, you can read more about your condition, or talk with other patients and experts online in chat rooms and message boards.
If you're feeling fine, some of these sites can provide tips to help
you stay that way. Now, if only your local doctor would let you make appointments
and describe your symptoms in advance on an online form, so you wouldn't
have to tell four people why you're in to see doctor today.