IDG’s PC World Asks: Is the Web Bad for Your Health?

SAN FRANCISCO — 01/05/2000 — Last year, an estimated 26 million Americans logged on to the growing number of health-related Web sites in search of answers to what ails them. Many found information that helped them make important decisions about their health care. Others received advice that was outdated, misleading-or even dangerous.

The Internet currently has more than 20,000 health-related sites, including online drugstores. With so many choices, where should consumers go for health-related information? PC World gives its prognosis in a February 2000 special report, "Is the Web Bad for Your Health?" (online now at www.pcworld.com/feb00/web_health and on newsstands January 18). To rate the sites, executive features editor Brad Grimes and Dr. Peter J. Stuart of the North County Hospital in Newport, Vermont, spent two months visiting a number of popular, general health sites. At each site, PC World checked out the community centers, used the available tools, and searched for specific health-related information, paying attention to the timeliness, accuracy, and breadth of the search results.

According to PC World, the Mayo Clinic Health Oasis (www.mayohealth.org) provided the most comprehensive and accessible health information online. The article praised the site, because it "answers questions clearly and concisely, makes medical journal articles easily readable, [and is] well-designed." However, it lacks the interactive tools — such as message boards and online chat sessions-found on another of PC World's recommended sites, AllHealth.com.

One criticism of the Internet is that it makes it too easy to buy prescription drugs — especially "lifestyle drugs" intended to improve the quality of life rather than cure disease-without consulting a physician in-person. Users simply fill out an online medical questionnaire form, provide a valid credit card number, and place the order. To find out just how easy it is, a PC World reporter placed orders for Viagra, Claritin, and Celebrex at seven Web sites. The good news: all deliveries came exactly as ordered, the correct dosages and quantities. The bad news: several of the prescription drugs arrived with surprisingly little documentation. And, one site delivered a Viagra order, even though the reporter indicated in the medical form that the "patient" had a history of ulcers. (Patients with active stomach ulcers are generally advised not to take Viagra.)

The article also offers tips for healthy living online. As users sort through the thousands of health-related Web sites, PC World urges readers to keep these precautions in mind:

— Get referrals: Newsgroups, like Deja.com, are often a good source for

health sites.

— Shop around: In cyberspace, it's easy to find a second or third

opinion, so you should. Always research multiple sites, and never rely

on any single article.

— Ask questions: If you don't understand something, contact the

site — either via email or phone. If you can't find a phone number, be

wary about using that site.

— Check the date: Look for two dates on any health article you see

online: the date it was published and the date it was last reviewed for

accuracy.

— Chat with care: Be careful of drug companies hawking their wares,

doctors promoting a procedure, or plain old loonies extolling the

curing power of your toenails.

— Check credentials: Most of the big sites have an Ask the Doc or Ask

the Experts section. Make sure you know who is dispensing the answers

and what their credentials are.

— Print it out: When you find an article you think pertains to your

specific condition, print it out and take it to your doctor at your

next visit.

— Just say no: Always consult with a real live doctor before medicating.

PC World's prescription for health-related Web sites? For now, going to the doctor without actually seeing a doctor is still just a fantasy. But the Web can play a major role in making consumers smarter, more informed patients. And despite some ethical dilemmas and the occasional shortcoming, the major health sites are excellent resources for learning about health issues and even for help in making life-and-death decisions.

The winner of the 1999 Grand Neal Award for editorial excellence, PC World is the world's largest computer publication with a circulation rate base of 1.25 million. PC World (www.pcworld.com) is published by PC World Communications, Inc., a subsidiary of IDG, the world's leading IT media, research and exposition company. IDG publishes more than 290 computer magazines and newspapers and 4,000 book titles and offers online users the largest network of technology-specific sites around the world through IDG.net ( http://www.idg.net ), which comprises more than 250 targeted Web sites in 55 countries. IDG is also a leading producer of 168 computer-related expositions worldwide, and provides IT market analysis through 49 offices in 42 countries worldwide. Company information is available at http://www.idg.com .