Finding Health Information on the Internet

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

May-June 2005

According to a recent well-respected Pew Internet and American Life Study, there are 70,000 health websites.  Further, 80% of American adults have searched for at least one of 16 major health topics with mental health coming in 8th at 21%.  A recent APA study found that this percentage was as high as 40%.  That means 25-50 million Americans have searched the web for mental health information.

Strikingly, 54% of Americans have gone to websites that contain support systems and 30% say they have exchanged emails about health with others.  There are hundreds of sites that provide information and then host online chats or discussion groups concerning health and mental health issues.  From my research it is clear that a substantial amount of health information is coming from anecdotes and personal opinions rather than reliable health sources.

As a mental health practitioner, you will find more of your patients bringing you information gleaned from the Internet.  They will gather data on medications, treatments and even your history and qualifications. And, they will want to discuss all of it with you.

What should your role be in this process?  An Australian study found that four of five patients said that if a doctor recommends a site they would be more likely to trust it and its information.  I feel that it is imperative that you encourage patients to gather information and bring it to the session.  I also feel that you are obligated to both recommend appropriate sites but also to provide patients with a structure within which they can evaluate the sites and their information.

Let me take the latter issue first.  There are seven major issues that consumers need to be aware of in order to do their own health site evaluations.
 

  1. They need to watch for commercial influences.  Many of the so-called informational sites are really there to sell books, vitamins and other for-profit options.
  2. Consumers need to be aware of the source of the information.  Is there sufficient literature backing up their assertions and claims?  Are the site holders credentialed in their field?  Do they provide information about themselves including any licenses they hold? In short, are they believable?
  3. Consumers should always make sure that the site has convenient, clear contact information.  There should be e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and, most importantly, an address to a physical location, not just a P.O. Box number.
  4. Does the website present multiple opinions on topics?  Do they discuss both sides of a controversial issue in a fair, even-handed manner? When appropriate, do they have experts present information in a public forum?
  5. Check to make sure that the information is updated regularly.  The site should have a notation that says something like “last updated on March 1, 2005.”
  6. Does the site have a clearly stated privacy policy?  If they are asking you for personal information, do they tell you how they will protect that information?
  7. Does the site promote chats, stories, and discussion groups?  If so, are they moderated by a professional or simply an exchange of personal opinions and anecdotes?

Below are the major health and mental health sites.  For a benchmark, I queried each site for psychological information on a sample topic (bipolar disorder) and a fairly new anti-depression medication (Duloxetine – Cymbalta).  Here’s what I found.

WebMD (webmd.com) is the most popular health search site on the Internet.  It has a lot to offer although I believe that it has become a bit too commercial.  On the home page there are numerous ads, in fact, so many that the content was limited.  It does have a great search engine and links you directly to Medscape (www.medscape.com), which is one of the most well known sites for medical professionals.  It also links to Medline, another online location for professional information.  WebMD did quite well on the two search terms but you had to scroll through ads and sponsored sites to get there.  By the way, on Medscape’s website you can also find vast information about drug references which are quite up-to-date.

The National Library of Medicine (www.nlm.nih.gov) is run by the National Institutes of Health and has sections for the public, health care professionals, and researchers.  The public section gets re-directed to Medline Plus (www.medlineplus.gov) which then provides numerous links to excellent sites.  It did quite well on “bipolar disorder” and found information on Cymbalta, too.  The professional information is very current, even showing research articles from 2005.  The entire site is arranged in an easy, comfortable fashion with no advertisements at all.

Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch) is actually in Switzerland as seen by the .ch at the end of the address (short for Confoederatio Helvetica, the official name of Switzerland).  It is a very simple site with links for both professionals and consumers.  My searches brought up a very organized list of links from a variety of databases and got me the most relevant information of any site.

FamilyDoctor.org is run by the American Academy of Family Physicians.  The search box took me to a variety of articles either on this site or their companion site, kidshealth.org.  The query for drug information took me right to MedlinePlus.

Mental Health Links by Dr. Bob (www.dr-bob.org/mental.html) is run by Robert Hsiung, MD.  Rather than providing information, it lists an amazing array of organized links to specialized sites primarily for mental health professionals.  I am continually amazed at how he manages to keep this site fresh with new links.  Whenever I need to find a link, it seems to be there. 

PsychCentral (www.psychcentral.com) is run by John Grohol, PsyD.  John has compiled a very comprehensive site with material, links, quizzes for consumers, book reviews, support groups, and even live chats with professionals.  When I looked up bipolar disorder I found a very clear and concise description with links to a quiz, treatment options, drug choices and more. 

New Site of the Month

Have you seen MyYahoo.com?  I use this as my home page.  You sign up (it’s free) and then organize the site to suit your needs.  I have it set up in three columns. The left side has weather for my home, work and future destinations.  A click gets me 10-day forecasts.  My left side also has a direct link to mapquest for directions and a personalized calendar.  The middle has news that interests me (OK, so most of it is technology-related but you can choose your own interests).  Below that I have movie show times for my local theaters.  On the right side I have sports scores for my favorite teams (Dodgers, Lakers, Chargers, Clippers, and UCLA). The sky’s the limit. I even changed the colors to blues and purples which are easier to read.


Copyright, 2005, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $30 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.