Health on the Net Special: The Web way to good health

Want to know more about your body? Forget the library; go for the Internet. But user beware.

One of the many dramatic effects of the Internet is that it is changing for ever the relationship between doctor and patient. Even five years ago, when you were diagnosed with something chronic, or learnt that your child had a life-threatening disease, there was little you could do except follow doctor's orders. The medical profession had control of all the information. If you wanted to know more, a couple of out-of- date textbooks in the local library was about the best you could hope for.

Now all that has changed. The Internet is bursting with health information. In February just one directory - Yahoo - had links to 4,563 sites devoted to diseases and medical conditions, 1,101 for mental health and 307 for dentistry. Today there are certainly more - it is estimated that the total number of web pages doubles every nine months. Anyone with a PC and a modem sitting at home can have access to mountains of new research, as well as a host of alternative and often controversial remedies. Not only that, but there are support groups where you can swap experiences and information with others suffering the same problem. It is not uncommon for patients to appear in their GP's surgery clutching computer print- outs and demanding new and exotic treatments for their condition.

Inevitably, the medical profession is in two minds about all this. On the one hand, the informed patient fits the current rhetoric that makes us all consumers. We shop around for the best value when buying a car or a kitchen, so why shouldn't we do the same with our health? But the old habit of being an infallible source of wisdom dies hard, and there are genuine fears about the quality of information available on the Net.

A good example of this contradiction appears in the current issue of the British Medical Journal, in an exchange of letters about the controversial link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

"As a parent of young children," writes J Selway, senior registrar in public health, Edensor, Tunbridge Wells "I have become aware of the website "The Informed Parent": /aphillip/WNW/ vaccine/dvm.txt). Although it is written by a non-physician it is written in the style of a medical journal which lends it more authority than it may merit ... it argues that vaccination is dangerous and unnecessary."

Selway goes on to suggest that it is no longer enough for doctors to give the simple reassurance they would have done in the old days. "The challenge is to produce information for parents that is accessible (including on the Internet) that addresses concerns that websites like this engender."

Not only does the letter highlight the theoretical issue, it nicely illustrates the practical problems involved. When I tried to find "The Informed Parent" web site, I couldn't. Wrong address? Temporary glitch? Who knows.

Someone who has been trying to build bridges between the medical profession and all the new resources on the web is Robert Kiley of the Wellcome Trust in London. His bi-monthly newsletter "He@lth Information on the Internet" is an invaluable source for tracking new developments.

"Doctors are worried about the Internet," he says, "and there have been studies in the journals showing that much of the information, even in specialised newsgroups dedicated to a disease, is inaccurate."

He describes some recent scams and idiocies, such as the sites that sprang up in the wake of the Viagra frenzy, using copies of the proper research by its makers, Pfizer, to sell something called Viagro that turned out to be a herbal stimulant. And there are other stories about people selling DIY sterilisation kits on the Net, not to mention a site where you can select donors you fancy and buy their sperm.

But this is part of the age-old battle between freedom and censorship. The anarchic, non-hierarchical nature of the Web does allow porn, Diana death conspiracy and sperm donor sites to flourish, but it also makes available an unbelievable wealth of information.

So how to separate the good stuff from the rubbish? Let's suppose that your child has been diagnosed as having asthma. Where can you go to find out what's new and what works? First step might be one of the major search engines, such as Alta Vista, Excite or Hot Bot (I'm assuming a basic familiarity with the Internet). The trouble is that putting in the word "asthma" will yield thousands of results.

These engines are much more useful if you are looking for something specific, such as the possible side-effects of a new drug or a particular controversial treatment. There is valuable information on the most obscure topics out there. For instance, a search for "amyotrophic lateral sclerosis" on one search engine yielded a dozen sites; another threw up a further 3,067 hits. But how do you know what is reliable?

"These four points are useful to bear in mind when judging how seriously to take the information a site gives," says Kiley. "First: does it say who the author is? Second: does it give references for its claims? Three: does it clearly state any vested interests? Four: does it show when it was last updated?"

The sites - gateways - listed below are all likely to throw up more reliable information than most. Many of the sites have a link to the massive medical database, Medline. This contains 9 million records, abstracts (mostly) from articles in thousands of journals. Any bit of serious research in the world will be referenced in Medline, and that is part of the problem. Put a search for asthma in there and you will get thousands of detailed results, many of them impenetrable accounts of biomolecular interactions. On the other hand, if you have a specific query, such as "Has anyone tested the effects of glucosamine on rheumatism?", you may well get something useful.

Using the Internet has absurdly been called "surfing"; in fact it is much more like being a librarian. You need to be patient, careful, precise and organised in order to find something useful. Gateways and other useful sites are all free, but for many you have to register, which just means providing name, address and other details. For some you may have to pay - via credit card - for articles downloaded. They all have their own search engines that may take a bit of getting used to.


Biomednet http://BioMed A bright, busy site with user-friendly articles on all sorts of medical and biological science topics, plus a search engine that will find a range of serious and often pretty dense journal articles.

Medical matrix http://www. A site with a mix of results including articles from research journals, extensive chapters from online text books and patient care guidelines, and a link to asthma articles in the New York Times.

Medical World Search http:// Has a search engine that will yield lots of proper research papers from high-quality journals, but it does take a bit of getting used to. There are all sorts of settings that you can change, so it can be bewildering at first, but it's worth persevering.

Medicine Net http://www. A rather more chatty and consumer- oriented site. Short entries; non-technical.

Medscape A heavyweight professional site where a search for asthma throws up detailed articles such as: "Alpha1-Antitrypsin Deficiency in COPD", as well as those that sound more accessible, like: "A Pediatric Asthma Self-Management Program That Gets Results".

Medexplorer Not a source of documents and research papers, but gives leads to useful resources. A number of them involve alternative and complementary medicine as well as self-help and support groups.

Healthworks http://www. A useful site and one of the few general UK ones. Has several e-mailed newsletters on subscription, such as "Health on the Internet", with regular lists of new medical and support sites, and "Women's health on the Internet". Also a database of 300-plus journals and links to many other sites.

Mining Co http://www.mining This site has sections on computers and hobbies but is useful for two health sections with clear, untechnical information. One covers general health; the other deals specifically with women's health. Links to alternative medicine sites and links to support groups.

Health on the Net http:// Here a panel of experts evaluates sites and divides your hits into "recommended" and "not checked". Gives lots of information on each to tell you whether it is worth visiting. Asthma yielded 64 approved and 1,600 unchecked.

Omni A UK attempt to bring quality control to online information, funded by, among others, the Welcome Trust and the Institute of Medical Research. Not as comprehensive as Health on the Net. It produced only 23 hits on asthma, but is clearly set out, easy to use and authoritative.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable