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Digital Doctors

More people are going online for health and wellness information than ever before – who can you trust?

As natural as the human body is in all of its aspects, facets and functions, we still have our hang-ups and vanities.

Studies show that most men and women, teens and children actually lie to their physicians, dentists and other health care providers, hiding embarrassing symptoms, exaggerating the care they take to stay healthy, and neglecting to ask difficult, health-related questions.

Often the only weapon our health care providers have to get us to confront health issues is the established routine – annual doctor checkups, visits to the dentist every six months, mammograms every three years until the age of 40 then one a year, annual prostate exams for men over the age of 40.

At the same time, health care resources are being stretched to their limits. Emergency rooms are being overrun with people who should be at their family doctor’s office, or with conditions that could have been easily treated weeks or months ago if patients didn’t take a "wait and see" approach.

There are long lineups to see health care specialists, such as nutritionists and experts on sleeping disorders, which also makes it difficult to get health information.

As a result of these issues, there is a growing dependence on the Internet, especially among young people, to answer health and wellness questions. According to a recent American survey, half of all Internet users turned to the Web for health related issues.

It’s anonymous, it’s accessible, it’s comprehensive, and it eases the burden on health care systems by giving patients a frame of reference to discuss and treat their health issues.

The problem is that there’s too much information out there already, from too many seemingly qualified sources. A lot of it is thinly disguised marketing, directing people with ailments towards particular cures or treatments, which can be dangerous without a doctor’s opinion.

For example, someone who wants to lose weight could be directed towards weight-loss pills. Someone with some kind of sexual malfunction could be directed towards diet information, or another kind of pill.

Web health was never meant to replace or circumvent the doctor/patient relationship, just make it easier for all the parties involved to communicate, and to help the public take preventative steps to ensure better overall health. One of the Internet’s most promising capabilities, one of its biggest potentials to benefit mankind has essentially been hijacked by for-profit groups.

How do you know what sites you can trust?

In the U.S., the American Accreditation Healthcare Commission, URAC, has taken on the extra task of reviewing existing health care Web sites, approving and accrediting sites that can be trusted.

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