Consumers take a much more active role in managing their own health care today than ever before. Years ago, the doctor made all the decisions about diagnostic tests, treatment, follow-up care, and prevention.
Today, doctor and patient often work as a team, making joint decisions that better fit the patient's own needs and lifestyle.
That trend is accelerating, thanks to the availability of enormous amounts of medical information on the Internet. Patients can consult a handful of Web sites and get the information necessary to participate in key medical decisions about their future.
Indeed, doctors often find that patients have become so knowledgeable, thanks to the Web and other information sources, that they try to wear the stethoscope. More and more patients, they say, are requesting specific diagnostic tests, prescription medicine, or other treatment.
Researching a health problem on your own requires certain basic information from the doctor, such as the exact medical name of the disease.
Suppose that Jane Jones needs surgery to remove a skin cancer. She finds out the kind of cancer, and searches for that name on the Web. Mrs. Jones discovers that a special kind of surgery, called Mohs surgery or microscopically controlled surgery, sometimes is used for this cancer.
It can remove the cancer while taking as little normal tissue as possible. Now Mrs. Jones now can start a doctor-patient dialog on whether Mohs surgery is right for her kind of cancer, health insurance coverage, and other circumstances.
To get the key information needed to research a disease, ask a basic set of questions before leaving the doctor's office:
A single statement often can get all of that information: “Dr. Doe, I'm going to research this condition on the Internet. Give me the official medical term for the disease and any other information I may need.”
In addition, find out how the doctor plans to treat the disease. There usually are several ways of treating a disease, and your Web research may uncover alternatives that better suit your needs. Again, get the exact medical terms for the treatment, including names of prescription drugs.
Write the information down on paper. Get the correct spelling of medical terms. If the doctor volunteers to write it down, be sure you can read the handwriting before leaving the office. Ask the doctor to print clearly.
What are good Web sites for getting accurate information on diseases? Studies have shown that there is plenty of junk medical information and bogus health advice on the Internet. Avoid those pitfalls by starting your search at a reliable site. Then use its links to move to other credible sites.
One of the simplest and best strategies starts at the National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov) home page. A mouse click on “Health Information” opens the way to scores of other excellent information sources.
They are not just government sites, but universities; renowned medical centers like the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic; health organizations like the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association; medical dictionaries; books and magazines, and much more.
Don't miss one link on the Health Information page, Health Finder, under Other Resources. It is a government health gateway, the path to every imaginable source of information about diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease.
Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. Email him at email@example.com.