The World Wide Web offers a mixture of sites that provide a variety of medical information. As with anything else on the Web, users should be careful about the information. The most useful sites clearly indicate that they do not provide medical advice, but offer guidelines on specific topics.
There are so many health-related sites on the Web that trying to find useful information can be as about enjoyable as filling out health forms in triplicate. Readers should treat the following sites, which are all free and open to the public, as easy-access substitutes for visits to the library and nothing more.
A good starting point is the site of the American Medical Association and its 275,000 members. Among its features: a reference library that offers in-depth information about diseases and substance abuse and "physician select," an index of virtually every licensed physician in the United States. "We want to be a one-stop shop for the general public seeking information about medical conditions and physicians," said Nancy Vlasek, business manager of the AMA site. "We are constantly updating it with new features."
Doctors can be researched by name or by specialty and zip code, providing details like their educational background, awards and confirmation of board certification. A search in the 90210 area of Beverly Hills showed 60 psychiatrists and 25 plastic surgeons; the same zip code had only six specialists in preventive medicine. Since not all doctors are members of the association, nonmember listings are not as detailed as those of members, but the basic information is still available. The site also offers links to other sites that deal with health issues.
JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, is also on line on the AMA site, but is quite comprehensive in its own right. This section is free, though some areas require an easy and on-the-spot registration process.
In addition to abstracts and tables of contents of every new issue, the site has an in-depth section dealing with AIDS, called the JAMA HIV/AIDS Information Center. This is one of the most thorough places to get information about the disease, thanks to its treatment information, patient support groups and daily compilation of news articles.
And it makes use of the "world" in World Wide Web -- with direct links to efforts in the fight against AIDS in more than 20 countries.
There are several sites that offer versions of "ask the doctor," with information presented in a question-and-answer format. Be aware, however, that some that look like pure medical information may be geared mainly to sell products.
Patients are often reluctant to ask certain types of questions, even of their family doctors, and that is an area in which doctors can play an important role on line. Chances are that the question has been asked before and is readily available in a question archive, or can be asked anonymously, saving any awkwardness or embarrassment. On the best sites, these archives are searchable.
One such site is run by Tripod Inc., an interactive media company aimed at young professionals. Every week, "Doctor Bob and his panel of health experts" choose a question to answer, and the site also has an extensive archive of questions like "What are the side effects of melatonin?" and "I am suffering from gastric ulcers. Can I can get rid of the acidity by controlling my diet?"
"Go Ask Alice," a site run by Columbia University and open to anyone on the Web, has one of the largest archives with more than 1,000 questions, also in searchable format. A site that deals solely with women's health issues is run by the Women's Health Specialists of San Diego.
Web sites are popping up all the time to provide specific information. For example, computer users with allergies can now turn to the Allergy Information Center.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has an extensive site that offers information on several diseases, as well as a health information page for travelers. It can clear up concerns about trips overseas, with its lists of vaccines and epidemic alerts. It also has a text-only version for those with slower computer connections. Similar information can be found at Travel Health Online, which has daily updates on its international pages.
If all this is tiring your hands, there is always the Typing Injury Archive, which bills itself as "a guide to comfortable computing." Run by Dan Wallach, a graduate student at Princeton University, the site has comprehensive information about problems like repetitive stress injury and carpal tunnel syndrome that plague computer users.
The site provides information about symptoms, causes and treatment for these injuries, as well as a no-nonsense guide to products that cater to those affected. These include alternatives to traditional keyboards as well as new kinds of pointing devices, complete with pictures.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company