Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Finding Health Information

Greetings LIFEers! Today's class had something that all of us at some point will need to know: how to find information regarding health and treatment options. When seeking out information on health, there are many places you can go: to professionals for advice, like doctors, nurses, PAs or pharmacists; or you can use print resources like books, health columns in newspapers, magazines or newsletters. But today we focused on a third source of information: the internet, and Cheryl Rowan from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine joined us to teach us how to navigate those murky waters.

Lets say you are searching for treatment options for dementia. If you go to Google and type in "dementia" you will get over 16 million websites that cover that topic. Obviously you are not going to spend hours and hours going through each of those sites. If you look at just the sites that pop up on the first page, you see Wikipedia, which calls itself an encyclopedia but should never be used as a source for something as serious as health as it can be edited by you and me, which means you can change the definition of a cat to be a small breed of dinosaur and claim Marie Antoinette was president of the moon. So don't use Wikipedia.

There are four ways to evaluate if a website you are on is a good source for you.
1) Provider - who is in charge of the site? This information should be at the top or bottom of the main web page along with contact information. If you can't find out who supports the website and how to reach them, then the site is less trustworthy. Also, lets say you are looking up dementia and the site you go to is hosted by a drug or big pharmaceutical company, you should be cautious. The drug manufacturer may try to influence you to use their drug for treatment when you may have better options. So avoid those sites when you can. A general rule of thumb is to avoid .com and .net sites as they are run by companies and thus have a biased point of view. Look for .gov and .edu sites as these are government and educational sites respectively which are more research based.
2) Quality of Information - is the information expert reviewed and current? Our knowledge of medicine is growing fast, so information has an expiration date on it just like milk. Try not to use sources that haven't been published or reviewed in the last 2 years. And avoid unbelievable claims. If the drug they sell can make you live longer, feel better, loose weight and grow hair, it is probably too good to be true. Move on.
3) Funding - where does the money come? Many sites support themselves by letting companies advertise on their website. And ads can be deceiving. They can be designed to look like reputable websites when they are actually trying to sell you a product. WebMD is physician sponsored but supports itself with advertising, so you may see ads for treatment of dementia that aren't in your best interest.
4) Privacy - does the site ask for a log-in or personal information to access their site? Be careful, because sites can also get funding by sharing their customer lists, so by providing your personal information you are opening the doors for spam. The site should tell you how your personal information will be used. If you are okay with this, then proceed. But know there are many reputable sites out there that don't require this.

So now you've told us what to avoid, but are there sites we should go to first, you ask. Yes, I say! MedlinePlus, NIH, NIH Senior Health, AHRQ, National Institutes on Aging and Ask Me 3 are all sites that meet the four criteria above.

MedlinePlus - - is run by the national library of medicine, so it is a trusted government site. There are no ads. Also, purple buttons at the bottom of the page will convert the website into over 40 languages, although you will lose some content, depending on the language. At the top of the page, a purple button that says "Spanish" will convert the page you are on into Spanish; a handy source for an English speaker helping out a Spanish speaker seeking health info. Health topics are listed A-Z. They have drug and supplement information and surgery videos and interactive tutorials.

NIH Senior Health - - is senior friendly and focused on senior health issues. Again, this is run by the government so there are no ads. All the content is physician approved. At the top of the homepage are buttons that enlarge the type, change the contrast and even have a voice read each page to you.

Agency for Healthcare Research Quality - - covers key topics for consumers and patients. It also has a guide for comparing medical treatments and free email updates.

National Institute on Aging -

Alzheimer's Association -

AskMe3 - - gives you help determining what questions to ask your doctor or health care provider. Bases health on 3 questions: What is my main problem? What do I need to do? Why is it important for me to do this?

For more information on health research, please contact

Cheryl Rowan
Houston Academy of Medicine - Texas Medical Center Library
1133 John Freeman Blvd.
Houston, TX 77030
phone: 713-799-7880

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