What’s Your Healthcare IQ?

Researching Your Health Questions Online

By Sean Eads

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter 2004.
Copyright 2004. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

A friend of mine recently went in for a regular mammogram and learned she needed exploratory surgery to test some suspicious tissue. Her physician recommended a specific surgeon. Can you imagine her surprise when she discovered through an information database that the surgeon had lost a multi-million dollar malpractice suit for precisely the same procedure she needed? Her own doctor had never heard about the lawsuit.

Has something similar ever happened to you, or do you have concerns that it might? A recent report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies shows a significant gap in health literacy among America’s 90 million adults. When it comes to seeking healthcare information, many people simply don’t know where to start.

Health literacy, the ability to obtain and understand health-related information in order to make an informed decision about one’s well-being, is increasingly important in the cyber age. The Internet can be either an effective tool or a dangerous deceit in locating authoritative information about medicine, fitness, and disease. Further, in a time when doctors are often faulted for not conveying all treatment options due to political or economic pressures, the patient is more responsible than ever for her own recovery.

There are several free and subscription-based databases available online to help you increase your health literacy. These resources benefit you by presenting information in understandable, unambiguous terms while remaining comprehensive and connected to the most current research. As always, it is important to consult many different databases when looking for health information. Even otherwise authoritative information resources have biases, often against alternative medicine and therapies. No single resource can provide a complete picture when it comes to your health.

Free or Library-Based Databases

Medlineplus.gov — This is the primary health database sponsored by the United States government through the National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine. Basic features include a medical dictionary and encyclopedia, information on prescription and over-the-counter drugs, the latest health headlines, and directories to find doctors and specialists. Medlineplus compiles authoritative websites on hundreds of topics, diseases, and conditions and presents information and diagrams in the clearest possible terms. Updates on drug trials and information for special needs groups — such as senior citizens or non-English speaking consumers — is also available. An excellent starting point.

Healthfinder.gov — Another government-based resource, Healthfinder was created by the Department of Health and Human Services. This database indexes authoritative medical information presented by approximately 1,700 government agencies, universities, and non-profit organizations. Information in this database is also presented more topically, making it useful to younger consumers as well as adults.

MedicineNet.com — This database is produced by more than 70 certified physicians who also publish the Webster’s New World Medical Dictionary. As detailed as Medlineplus.gov, MedicineNet features more articles and many people may find it easier to use. It features an excellent overview of approximately 420 popular drugs, as well as comprehensive information on different types of procedures and tests, diseases and conditions, and the latest news. The inclusion of several support group message boards adds a personal touch when the need to connect to another person about a disease is more important than the written word.

AMA Physician Selecthttp://dbapps.ama-assn.org/aps/amahg.htm — The American Medical Association’s database of doctors lets you locate and obtain basic professional information on physicians, such as years in practice, specialty, and educational background.

EBSCOhost — EBSCO is a large information publisher that offers two popular databases — one for consumer and another for academic information. Available through most public and college libraries, EBSCO’s Health Source database gives you access to nearly 600 health journals covering everything from nutrition to sports health. EBSCO also offers a clinical pharmacology database that features information on all U.S. prescription drugs, herbal and nutritional supplements, and drugs currently under review. Check your local library for online availability.

Newsbank — Not really a health information database, Newsbank covers news sources from around the world and your local area. This is a good place to look for articles on malpractice suits against local doctors or problems with nearby hospitals or care providers. This database is usually available through most public and academic libraries.

Findarticles.com — This free database of online journal articles offers the full text of many health and medical journals covering both consumer and academic help.

Subscription Databases

HerbMed.org — This database of herbs and herbal medicine does have a limited free section that covers about 75 different herbs and lists information on clinical trials, methods of preparation, historical uses, safety, identification, and cultivation. Most of its information is available only by individual subscription or may be available through a public or academic library.

Herbs.org — The website of the Herb Research Foundation (HRF) has more than 300,000 research articles on herbs and herbal medicine. The HRF is the publisher of the Encyclopedia of Popular Herbs, available in most public and academic libraries. Many of their publications are available for purchase online.

HealthGrades.com — This database has both free and pay services. Of particular interest are the physician reports, which thoroughly research the background of doctors, including education, board certifications, and any disciplinary actions over the last five years.

Online Organizations

Almost every disease or condition has a community organization or society dedicated to providing targeted information and support. The Internet has allowed these specialty groups to flourish into vital information resources. Many times, the best information isn’t found on a database but through another person. Online organizations, besides offering medical information, often feature message boards, and chat rooms supplement user knowledge and provide much-needed support. For example, someone with prostate cancer might want firsthand accounts about a particular procedure rather than articles. Message boards promote interaction and interaction promotes community, hope, and healing.

Being diagnosed with an illness can be unsettling. It is vital to remember that no one piece of health information was ever written for a single person; if you suffer from something, others surely suffer from it too. Looking for information is an important part of finding your way back to yourself and discovering new communities and fellowships.

Your health can never be entirely in your own hands, but with a growing number of medical resources available online, people are increasing their ability to make informed decisions about medicine, procedures, and treatments. The range of resources is so astonishing that no single article could cover them all, but hopefully the databases and websites discussed here will provide an excellent start toward your investigation.