Searching for medical information online
I know a lot of doctors who are driven crazy by patients (or their parents or children) who arrive with file-folders full of internet printouts, but there's no question there is more information out there than any one person can keep track of, and some of it might even be true and helpful.
Tips for savvy medical searching
by Elizabeth Cohen for cnn.com
[We assume] you already know the basics of good Internet searching: .gov and .edu sites are to be trusted, as are sites for major health centers (think MayoClinic.com) and health organizations (such as the American Cancer Society's cancer.org). For the Internet searcher hungry for more, here are some tips for being a sophisticated surfer:
- Use search engines that screen out the garbage for you, a search engine that looks only at reputable sites that have been vetted by health professionals. Dirline, run by the National Library of Medicine, is one such engine, as are medlineplus.gov and Imedix.com. Healthfinder.gov searches for information on government health Web sites.
- Find smart bloggers with your disease; some bloggers do an excellent job of linking to resources specific to your disease. That goes for advocacy groups, too.
- Invest 30 minutes in the pubmed.gov tutorial
Pubmed.gov searches the medical literature, but it isn't completely intuitive. It's worth the time to learn how to use it by doing the tutorial.
Nervous you won't understand the technical jargon in medical articles? Don't be, says Guthrie. She advises reading the very beginning of a study and the very end. "The conclusion will tell you whether the treatment they studied was effective, moderately effective, or not at all effective."
In addition, the Medical Library Association, has brochures called Deciphering Medspeak to help translate some of the more common medical jargon.
Tara Parker-Pope, a health columnist for the New York Times, found it useful to specifically search for review articles on pubmed when she was looking for treatments for her mother's esophageal cancer. Review articles give an overview of the latest research on a particular subject. "Review articles are an excellent way to get a lay of the land and to get the big picture on a topic," Parker-Pope says.
To find review articles on pubmed, go to the "limits" tab and then under "type of article", check "review."
- Click on information about annual meetings
For example, let's say you just got a breast cancer diagnosis. You could go to asco.org, the site for the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and look at information on new breast cancer treatments discussed at last year's meeting.
This is the way to get cutting-edge information, Guthrie says. "Information on new treatments is presented at conferences six to 12 months before it's published in a medical journal."
Guthrie says she managed to find out about a new treatment for tendonitis this way. "It wasn't even in the medical journals yet. We found one doctor in New York who was doing it. If I had tendonitis, it might've been worth traveling to him," she says.
- When in doubt about a Web site, click on "about us"
Sometimes it's clear who runs a Web site. Often it's not. Clicking on "about us" should explain it. Knowing who's behind the information you're reading (especially if they're trying to sell you something) helps you evaluate whether the information is biased. If you can't figure out who runs the site, don't use it.
And here perhaps are two of the most valuable pieces of advice: Use Internet resources in combination. "An advocacy group or a review article by itself is pretty useless," Parker-Pope says. "No one of these works by itself."
The second piece of advice: Don't expect the Internet to cure your disease. "I wanted to find the needle in the haystack to cure my mother," Parker-Pope says. "But information doesn't cure cancer. It just leads you to the best doctor and the best options."