Parents who have searched for health information online know it can be every bit as frustrating as it is enlightening. Many websites have an agenda that isn’t obvious until you finally figure out who is paying to put all that information at your fingertips. Even more worrisome, researchers have found that information on many health websites is outdated, incomplete, or simply inaccurate.
Even though the medical Internet seems like a free-for-all, there are reputable sites that can help you manage healthcare for your family more efficiently and effectively. Here are a few ideas about what you should—and shouldn’t—do online:
Master the basics. Time with your pediatrician is short and precious so don’t waste it on things you could have learned online. Use a reliable, non-profit website like Kidshealth.org or Healthychildren.org to get up-to-speed on basic childhood health issues like cold medicines, diaper rash or chicken pox vaccine. Avoid using multi-purpose search engines like Google for basic health info because they will cough up too many sites that have an axe to grind, a product to sell or a conspiracy theory to defend.
Check out drugs. Don’t buy medicine for your family online. The risk of getting counterfeit drugs is simply too great. Instead, use Drugs.com to research benefits and side effects of both prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Both the website and the app are easy to use. If you can’t afford drugs that have been recommended for a family member, go to Rxassist.org, a non-profit website that has up-to-date information about assistance programs, many run by the companies that manufacturing the drugs.
Find healthcare providers. Word-of-mouth from other parents is probably still the best way to find a pediatrician, but a website like Healthgrades.com and Ucomparehealthcare.com can be invaluable when you need to check out specialists, hospitals and other health facilities. Among other things, these services allow you to see where physicians were educated, where they have hospital privileges and whether they have faced disciplinary action.
Comparison shop. Healthcare is the only area in which consumers don’t know the price of things before they buy and where costs vary dramatically from place to place. Slowly, the Internet is making the cost of health services more transparent. If you have health insurance, your company’s website may have lists of what they regard as reasonable and customary costs for everything from office visits to surgery. BlueCross has also produced a useful app called Healthcare Bluebook that allows you to look up a fair price for services in your community. Similar information is available at newchoicehealth.com and fairhealthconsumer.org. New Choice is easier to use but it lists fewer procedures.
Research alternatives. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (nccam.nih.gov) provides candid advice about the pros and cons of alternative practices ranging from acupuncture to yoga as well as supplements such as probiotics and Valerian. Under the section entitled “Be an Informed Consumer,” you’ll find detailed advice about evaluating health websites as well as information about what to do if your health insurer is unwilling to pay for CAM treatments.
Connect with your pediatrician. Most physicians now have websites that make it easy to set up appointments, refill prescriptions, and get basic healthcare information. Even doctors who don’t have websites may be willing to do email consultations on simple problems. Just be sure to find out whether they charge per email.
Locate support. An online community with active message boards is often the best place to find encouragement when you are facing family medical problems. Parents of children with disabilities or chronic illnesses can benefit enormously from sharing their experiences with other parents who “get” what they are talking about. Teenagers and even children facing health challenges such as cancer or diabetes may also find such communities helpful. Healthfinder.gov offers an extensive list of support groups at http://bit.ly/2fN9rE3. You may also want to check with your local hospital or organizations devoted to specific illness. Both parents and teens should remember that any medical advice provided by people in online groups is simply one person’s opinion.
Of course, any health information or services you find online should supplement and not replace consultation with your physician. Doctors often have ambivalent feelings about patients who pre-research medical conditions online, in part because they have to spend so much time reeducating those who have been seduced by improbable claims and wishful thinking. By using reliable health information sites, you can become the exception—a patient whose online research actually contributes to informed decisions that will protect and improve the health of your family.
SI Parent provides a list of health services, which you can access through siparent.com/health-services.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years. She is also the author of Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart, a book that describes a highly effective way to address conflict in families, schools and communities. Visit cooperativewisdom.org for more information.