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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.

Last week URCA released a list of 13 Web sites that met their 14 criteria, principles that were set in the interest of consumer protection, including privacy, security, quality of information, harmony of information, fairness of transactions, and professional conduct.

The sites that made the grade are:

A.D.A.M. at www.adam.com – A.D.A.M. publishes the Health Illustrated Encyclopedia, as well as books on anatomy. It also supplies other health Web sites with images and information.

Healthyroads at www.healthyroads.com – This site is by the American Specialty health Networks, and covers a wide range of topics and cures that are outside the mainstream, with articles on health issues like vegan diets, back pain, stress and arthritis.

Group Health Incorporated at www.ghi.com – GHI is a not-for-profit health insurance company based in New York state. They also supply general information on health and wellness.

Hayes OnHealth at www.hayesonhealth.com – Hayes provides independent health care information to help consumers make informed medical decisions. You can’t get in, however, unless your health insurance company directs you there for a second opinion.

Health Insurance Association of America at www.hiaa.org – The HIAA helps to direct consumers towards insurance programs that can benefit them, and creates and maintains standards within the health insurance industry.

HealthHelp: Information and Beyond at www.hhni.com – HealthHelp administrates radiology services for health insurers.

HealthWise at www.healthwise.org – Healthwise monitors and recommends perscription-strength information to doctors and consumers.

Intelihealth at www.intelihealth.com – Intelihealth is consumer-oriented, guiding the public to information by the Harvard Medical Schools on illnesses and health. This site features a "Symptom Scout," where you can enter information about your illness and receive a list of possible ailments. It also features a medical dictionary, a summary of tests and procedures, fitness information, and literally dozens of other information services.

Veritas Medicine at www.veritasmedicine.com – This site provides information for doctor’s, evaluating the different treatment options and providing the clinical trials reports available on a comprehensive list of cures.

LaurusHealth at www.laurushealth.com – LaurusHealth is a comprehensive hub for health information, including health news and information and guides to illnesses and conditions, pharmaceuticals, medical tests, and self-help resources.

WebMD at www.webmd.com – WebMD is one of the largest and most-trusted sources of health information on the Web, with a complete range of services for patients, physicians, insurers and other health care providers. They also provide communications and software to health care providers.

WellMed at www.wellmed.com – WellMed is a personal health management service that gives individuals the information they need to talk to their employers, health insurance companies and physicians.

The Canadian Medicare system is a lot different than the American system, with less of a focus on health insurance, and a single standard of health care that is, in theory, applied universally.

While there isn’t an emphasis on accreditation, the Canadian Medical Association and Health Canada are looked upon as definitive sources of health care information. As such, they have both taken it upon themselves in recent years to punch up the quality and quantity of health information available on the Web.

In Canada, more than 42 per cent of households were hooked up to the Internet, with B.C. and Alberta leading with figures of 50 per cent and 48 per cent.

More than 54 per cent of Canadians used the Internet to access medical and health information, which is more than the number of people who used the Internet to shop for goods and services.

And people are doing more than looking for information. "Through their interactions with the Internet, e-health consumers are starting to demand the same level of service that they can get from other industries," wrote Nancy Gault, a private consultant who was commissioned by Health Canada to study the growth of e-health in Canada. "Some of the features they expect include customization, convenience, information for decision-making and improved quality of service."

According to Gault, of the 54 per cent of Canadian Internet users who sough medical and health information online, 21 per cent reported increased compliance with prescriptions; 30 per cent visited the doctor; 42 per cent made a treatment decision; 43 per cent asked their doctors about a prescription, and 47 per cent urged or took a family member to visit a health care provider.

The source of that information is still a concern, according to OHIH director general William Pascal.

"As Canadians – concerned with maintaining a healthy lifestyle or caring for family members – attempt to sift through the mountain of health tips and ‘professional’ advice bombarding them in the media and on the Net, they’re finding it increasing difficult to sort solid, reliable health information they can trust from promotional pitches trying to sell them a product or a cure," he says.

"That’s where Health Canada is playing a lead role, in ensuring that Canadians of all ages have access to accurate, up-to-date, health information."

In Canada, where many rural areas have a profound shortage of health care providers, the Internet is also being looked at as a way to increase the level of services offered.

To this end, the federal government is spending millions of dollars each year to upgrade the Health Canada Web site at www.hc-sc.gc.ca to provide more and better information to Canadians.

In 1999, Health Canada published Canada Health Infoway: Paths to Better Health, which laid out a framework for the development of a health information highway.

At the last meeting between provincial premiers and the prime minister on Sept. 11, the federal government earmarked an unprecedented $500 million over the next five years for the development of health information systems.

The Office of Health and the Information Highway is the government agency that was charged with bringing the information and communications technology in Canada’s health system into the 21 st century.

While nothing groundbreaking has been achieved for Canadians as of yet in the form of a comprehensive and centralized Web site for health information, some new innovations are on the way, including electronic health records, which allow doctors to access and add to your personal health record via the Internet. The Telehealth service, an Internet service that doctors use to exchange information and to post information that’s absolutely crucial, such as health epidemics and product recalls, is also being boosted.

The health information centre that’s currently in the works will provide clear and comprehensive information to Canadians, according to Pascal.

"Eventually, this electronic information network will also include local directories of health services, report cards on health programs and services, and assessments of treatment options that Canadians can access at the click of a mouse," says Pascal.

Given time, the Web could actually save the ailing Medicare program by giving people the tools to stay healthy, and an avenue to consult health and medical information without visiting the doctor.

Speaking of doctors, the Canadian Medical Association has recently launched an Internet portal "by physicians for physicians" that allows doctor’s and students to interact with each other, and provides access to a wide range of medical information – daily health news from the CMA Journal and Medical Post, medical databases, electronic books and journals, and online continuing education courses.

In the meantime, the Health Canada Web site provides links to other health care sites and volumes of basic information on illnesses, disease and health.

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