Internet offers useful health data

Let's assume somebody you know has become ill. In the past, your tendency might have been to bring flowers and a tuna casserole — and I'm not discouraging that (although you might opt for something just a little more healthful than a casserole). Or you might instead do what increasingly more people are electing to do — give your ailing friend information.

According to a recent report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, "only half of adults with chronic health conditions use the Internet for health-related information." Once they go online, they reportedly become avid users and more than 60 percent say they obtain information which notably affects their overall approach to health self-management. But they may need a little friendly assistance getting there.

In many cases it's the person with the illness or chronic condition who initiates the search, but that's less likely to happen if you're elderly, and it certainly won't happen if you're not computer literate. And no matter what your age or inclination (especially if you're debilitated by your illness), it can be frustrating and sometimes even frightening to try to sort through Internet-based health information.

Enter a caring friend with a penchant for Web exploration and a little savvy about what to look for and where. That friend probably knows about the Medical Library Association's package of tools for finding and evaluating health information on the Web. I've been told that I periodically gush over newly found approaches to wellness, but this particular site ( and its many credible links is almost indescribable in its usefulness. I think a certain amount of gush is entirely justified.

Let's say you, and the people who care about you, are looking for information about cancer. Once you start down that path, you acquire the label "e-patient," i.e. someone who is, according to Pew Project sponsors, "equipped, enabled, empowered and engaged" in health-care decision-making.

Being an e-patient is a good thing, but proceed carefully. According to the Pew study, only 14 percent of e-patients said they "always" check the source and the date the health information was posted. And it's even more complicated than that. Another study by the Department of Health and Human Services found that only 4 percent of the most "frequently visited" health sites disclose the source of the information provided — and only 2 percent identify how the content was updated. Yikes!

Re-enter a fast-fingered, caring friend with a passion for quality assurance. She would probably start you off at the Medical Library Association site and quickly move you to the Association of Cancer Online Resources ( She may offer to hook you up with a copy of "Living a Healthy Life with Chronic Conditions" by Dr. Kate Lorig (available at, referring you to the section on gathering treatment information. If treatment costs, or the complexities of insurance coverage, were part of the challenge, I feel sure this friend would direct you to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (

Be you an e-patient or the friend of one "¦ there's a lot of good health information out there. But you need more than "good," you deserve the best.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension Service. She can be reached at

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