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Finding Your Way: Online Health Information—Pros and Cons

The Internet continues to be a powerful force in how we live our lives, including how we find health information. A recent survey showed that from 75 to 80 percent of adults who use the Internet also look for health information online. People who have a new diagnosis or a chronic disease are most likely to do so.

Today, there’s a vast amount of this information at your fingertips. Much of it is very good. However, not all of it is accurate, unbiased or tailored to your needs. Some websites are solely concerned about selling their products or services. That’s why I urge patients to pay attention to the information’s source.

Government websites can be a great resource. Healthfinder.gov, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is a site I find particularly useful for helping people stay healthy. It provides information in English and Spanish on hundreds of health topics, ranging from asthma to viruses. It also includes links to more than 6,000 government and nonprofit health groups.

The site, which was recently updated, has new features that make it easier for consumers to locate information quickly. One tool, the “Quick Guide to Healthy Living,” gives you information about the top things you can do to stay healthy.

The Quick Guide:

• Tells you how small steps you can take to improve your health can lead to big benefits.

• Motivates you by showing you the benefits of healthy behaviors.

• Provides you with tools, such as personal health calculators, menu planners and recipes, and lists of questions that you can take to your doctor’s appointments.

Another new, useful tool on this website is called “myhealthfinder.” It was developed by my agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, with HHS’ Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. The tool provides you with advice on preventive care that is tailored to your age, gender and risk factors, such as smoking. It also provides advice for pregnant women.

Based on the information you enter into the tool, you may get between five and 15 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations that you can print out and take to your next doctor’s appointment. The task force is an independent panel of experts in preventive and primary care that my agency sponsors.

For example, if you are a 35-year-old man, you would get recommendations to get your blood pressure and cholesterol checked. Based on your family history and risk factors, you and your doctor may decide that you need additional preventive care.

If you are a 62-year-old woman, your recommendations would include getting an annual flu shot and being screened for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer. It would also advise you to have your blood pressure checked regularly and talk with your doctor about taking aspirin to prevent heart disease. Based on your family history, you and your doctor may decide that other tests and preventive care also are appropriate.

A wise philosopher observed four centuries ago that “Knowledge is power.” Today, online tools like Healthfinder.gov make it easier to find and use information on how to stay healthy. That’s power worth having.

I’m Dr. Carolyn Clancy, and that’s my advice on how to navigate the health care system.

 

Carolyn Clancy, a general internist and researcher, is an expert in engaging consumers in their health care. She is the director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

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