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How to use the Internet for health information

Created date

October 22nd, 2009

The Internet makes it easy to find health information. You can go online and learn about medications, diseases, technologies, and other health data you otherwise wouldn t have access to, without a trip to a medical library. Not all of that online information, however, is legitimate.

Separating the good from the bad

[caption id="attachment_6395" align="alignright" width="200" caption="The internet can be a useful health tool, if you know the right sites to visit."][/caption] Currently there is no regulation of health information on the Web, or standards regarding advertisements found on many health content websites. Much of the reliable health information on the Internet comes from sources like major medical centers, universities, and well-known nonprofits like the Arthritis Foundation(, American Heart Association(, and Alzheimer s Association( Federal government websites are also excellent sources of comprehensive and useful information. Beware, however, of websites selling something. "Ads found on websites are not always easy to identify," says William Russell, M.D., vice president of clinical informatics for Erickson Retirement Communities. "They are the banners across the top of your screen, or the little boxes off to the side. Many are marked sponsored links, which at least alerts you there is a commercial interest behind them." Using the Internet to learn about a particular disease or medication can be easy, but keep your doctor informed about information that you plan to use. "Even if you are utilizing reliable websites for help with a specific medical condition, not all of them address the specific needs of a senior audience," Russell says.

Hidden drug dangers

"Americans over age 65 are only 13% of the population but account for over a third of all prescriptions filled," Russell says. Many of them, in an effort to save on medication costs, order lower-priced drugs online from pharmacies located outside the U.S. According to the Food and Drug Administration, some dangers of this practice include unknowingly buying expired drugs, products with dangerous ingredients, or medications that are either dangerously strong or largely ineffective. These dangers apply to both prescription and over-the-counter medications. Even some of the standard approved ingredients may be dangerous only to older adults. "A common antihistamine, diphenhydramine, can cause delirium, agitation, and other problems in older adults," Russell says. Drug purchases now account for most of the $93 million that consumers spend each year for health care online, but growing numbers of people are also buying medical devices. While something like magnets or copper bracelets (which are often used for arthritis or pain relief) probably won t hurt you, other non-approved, non-tested devices can. "People are buying hearing aids online. That is not wise since these devices need to be fitted and tested properly for each individual," Russell says. Experts agree you should ask either your primary care doctor or a specialist about health information you see online before you take any action. "Print out the item and bring it in. A good doctor will always find the time to discuss new possibilities with you," Russell says.

U.S. Govt Online Health Information

  • MedlinePlus: a service of the National Library of Medicine, comprehensive health and drug information (
  • NIH Senior Health: health information for seniors (
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: healthy aging for seniors (
  • National Institute on Aging: health publications and a database of health and aging organizations (