Online health-care resources

There's a ton of it out there, but experts urge caution in determining what's reliable

By Colleen LaMay

More and more consumers are scouring the Internet for health information, but finding reliable sources remains a challenge. Some patients are getting more sophisticated about searches, but many still have trouble telling reputable sites from sites with outdated, incomplete or misleading information, or commercial sites intended to sell products, said a medical librarian at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise.

"A lot of times, people just don’t know all the good places to go, especially if someone wants to really go in-depth about a disease," said Therese Borgerding, librarian for the Kissler Family Health Sciences Library at Saint Al’s.

According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the number of people using information from Web sites to help their kids, parents, other family members or friends cope with major illnesses has risen 54 percent in the past three years. Over the period, 40 percent more are using it to cope with their own illnesses.

Lorilyn Tenney, 37, who was at St. Luke’s Meridian Medical Center for a doctor’s appointment, is one of those people. She suffers from a variety of health conditions, including fibromyalgia and asthma, and during a pregnancy began suffering from intense itching. She found no relief from medications and turned to the Internet, finally turning up a medical condition to explain her perplexing symptoms, a liver condition called cholestasis, confirmed by her doctor.

"We only found out because of a thorough search of the Internet," she said. Her daughter Sophie was delivered a month early in 2006 because women with the condition have a little-understood tendency to deliver stillborn children, she said.

Tenney uses the Internet a lot, but finding reliable, in-depth information can be daunting for many people facing serious diagnoses and difficult treatment options.

"A lot of people do a Google search and pull out two or three things which may or may not be reliable, so that’s my concern," said St. Luke’s librarian Pamela Spickelmier, medical librarian for St. Luke’s/Mountain States Tumor Institute.

However, she said, the National Library of Medicine has lots of reliable information, including journal articles, interactive patient tutorials, health news and other topics available to the public through MedlinePlus. The award-winning health Web site is on the Medical Library Association’s list of top-10 useful consumer health sites. Both Boise librarians recommended the association’s Web site.

Here are some recommendations from the Medical Library Association’s Web site to evaluate the reliability of health-care information you find on the Internet:

Sponsorship

Sponsorship helps establish a site as respected and dependable. The sponsor of a site should be clearly identified. A list of advisory board members or consultants may help give you a better idea about the credibility of the site’s information. The Web address itself can provide additional information about the site. For example:

- A government agency has .gov in the address.
- An educational institution has .edu in the address.
- A professional organization such as a scientific or research society is .org.
- Commercial sites may represent a specific company or be sponsored by a company using the Web to sell products. But many commercial Web sites have valuable and credible information. Many hospitals have .com in their address. The site should fully disclose the sponsor.

Up-to-date

The site should be updated frequently because health information changes constantly. The date of the latest revision usually is at the bottom of the page.

Just the facts

Information should be capable of being verified from a primary information source such as the professional literature, abstracts or links to other Web pages. Information represented as an opinion should be clearly stated and the source identified as a qualified professional or organization.

The St. Luke’s library or the Kissler library at Saint Al’s can help if you get stuck. Neither library advertises itself to the public for fear their small staffs may be overwhelmed, but you won’t be turned away if you show up.

One advantage of a medical library over a home PC is that consumers have low-cost access to many more full-text medical journal articles through hospital subscriptions. The cost is 10 cents a page to copy. "You have the same access as the clinical staff as long as you are in the library," Borgerding said. Without paying sometimes hefty fees, the full texts of many medical journal articles may be unavailable to you at home.

Other Valley libraries where you can research health topics online include:

Boise Public and other area libraries If you don’t have a computer at home, you can go online at a local public library to search databases by topic, including drugs and chemical safety, wellness and fitness, clinical trials, doctors, medical periodicals and hospitals. The information available at the libraries though may be less extensive than at the Boise hospital libraries.
Albertsons Library at Boise State You don’t have to be a student or alumni to get a free library card. With it, patrons have access to a variety of heath-related data bases, including CINAHL (Cumulative Index of Nursing and Health Literature), which covers nursing and allied health, ALT-healthwatch, which offers full texts of journal articles on holistic and alternative medicine, and Medic Latina, which includes an index to more than 100 Spanish-language medical journals.