Networking: Searching for Health Information On-line

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By Laura Buchan

Health sites on the Internet are a hot item when I searched for sites using the keywords 'health and Canada', Alta Vista's search engine came up with 33,810,715 matches. With all the material out there, it's important to be careful and critical of the information that is being offered by these sites.

Some surfing tips:

The URL (e.g. www.cwhn.ca) gives you some information right away. The last part of the domain name (.com, .org, .edu) is significant: .com are for commercial sites, .org is for non-profit organizations, .edu is for educational institutions. You may also see country codes like .ca for Canada, .fr for France, .uk for United Kingdom, .au for Australia

Now, while you can't always be sure that a .org is a non-profit organization, it's a safe bet. I like .ca sites even more, since it's complicated to get granted a .ca domain name, while a .com can be bought within a day. You know that any site that has a .ca has expended some effort to get there.

Who's paying for the web site?

If there's an "About Us" section that tells me about the goals and make-up of the organization, I'm a lot more likely to trust the information. I'm normally suspicious of commercial health sites I don't like sites that are trying to sell me something. The most annoying site that I've come across is one where every page that you open also opens a pop-up ad every single page!

How current is the information?

Do they stand behind their information? With the explosion of health information on the net and the fact that health information is generally unregulated, some organizations have come together to establish criteria for trustworthy information one of the most common I've seen is the Geneva-based Health On the Net Foundation's certification (HONcode).

Some sites to get you started

Specific medical condition

You (or someone you care about) has been diagnosed with a specific medical condition and you're looking for more information. Often, a good place to start is with the non-profit organizations associated with the condition. These sites will often offer facts, updates on the latest research, resources and links to other sites. Be aware, though that most organizations (like the Canadian Women's Health Network) take no responsibility for the content of pages outside its site.

Support

Many people, when they are very ill or have a lost someone to an illness, find it helpful to be in contact with others who have lived the same experience. There are many support organizations on the Web.

General health and prevention

My strategy is often to head to one of the more established web sites which will often have daily news stories, sites of the day, resources and links to other health sites.

Alternative medicine

Unfortunately, it's much easier to find web sites with a bio-medical perspective than it is to find sites devoted to 'alternative' medicine. These sites are sometimes quite small and maintained by one or two people with an interest in the alternative therapy or medical approach.

Other resources - libraries and clearinghouses.

Despite working in the information technology field, I have a lingering fondness for books. When researching in a library, it's easy to gather information that may be trickier to identify on the web for example, who wrote it? What are their sources? How current is the information? Also, you've got an ally in your search reference librarians who may be able to point you in the right direction quickly and efficiently.

Clearinghouses serve the same purpose and the Clearinghouse at the CWHN is just a phone call away.

An Internet site is no replacement for a proper diagnosis. This isn't to say that women don't have an important role to play in their own health care (breast self-examination comes to mind), but all the sites I visited and articles that I read to prepare this article repeat again and again that the Internet should not be relied upon as your only source of health information.

Notes:

Domain names are notoriously U.S.-centric, so often a site originates from the United States unless otherwise specified.

I don't want to give the impression that all commercial sites are virtual snake oil shops some commercial sites (www.alzheimers.com comes to mind) offer excellent information and resources.

It's great if a site has a 'last-updated-on' date, so you know when this information was posted and whether its claims of new discovery may in fact be old news.

Links

Visit (http://www.hon.ch/HONcode/Conduct.html).

The Arthritis Society http://207.181.114.56

The Canadian AIDS Society http://www.cdnaids.ca

The Canadian Breast Cancer Network http://www.cbcn.ca

The Canadian Diabetes Association http://www.diabetes.ca/

The Kidney Foundation of Canada http://www.kidney.ca/index-eng.html

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Other Infant Death (SIDS/OID) Information Web Site http://sids-network.org {this is not a typo no www at the beginning}

Willow a breast cancer support group http://www.willow.org

Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization http://www.y-me.org

Health Canada Online http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/english/

Healthy Way Canada http://healthyway.sympatico.ca/

Canadian Health Network http://www.canadian-health-network.ca

Homebirth Choice - http://www.efn.org/~djz/birth/homebirth.html

A Friend Indeed - an on-line journal about menopause - http://www.pangea.ca/~afi