Navigating the Health Web


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Reliable health information can be found online–with the help of your library
by Louise Kertesz

You are a consumer with a question about health care. Perhaps you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Or you may be in good health and want to stay that way by eating properly and taking good care of yourself. Or you may be searching for health insurance coverage. Where do you turn for information?

There’s a mass of health information available to consumers today–more than ever before, thanks to the internet. But that information is not always reliable and understandable.

Consumers who are looking for good, clear health information can get online at home and check out the websites mentioned in this article. Need help with the internet or prefer to consult a consumer health book? Stop by the public library. Librarians can provide guidance to reliable, up-to-date sources of health information.  

For example, librarians can help navigate a list of Internet resources for consumer health information selected by Healthnet: Connecticut Consumer Health Information Network. The Medical Library Association provides resources under “A User’s Guide to Finding and Evaluating Health Information on the Web.”

Those lists can be daunting, though, so consumers may want to start by checking out the following reliable websites:

Government Websites As part of health care reform, in July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched a first-of-its-kind website to help people find health insurance coverage. Designed to be as easy to use as possible, the site asks you a series of questions about yourself, and based on your answers it displays a list of both private and public health coverage options available to you, along with contact information for those plans. (It’s hard to imagine it has taken this long to help people quickly obtain this information.) In October, the site will add information about prices, coinsurance, and deductibles.

A grand aggregator of health information, also links to some of the sites mentioned in this column and also provides information on preventive care. The site also explains the new health care reform law and what to expect from it. Useful information for consumers will be continually added to the site.

Medline Plus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, is perhaps the most comprehensive site, which is being redesigned this summer to make it easier to use. You’ll find 800 health topics, a searchable medical encyclopedia, surgery videos, health information in more than 40 languages, and more. “Evaluating Web-Based Health Resources” will help you decide whether a website is reliable. 

Other websites include similar tools and information, including:, from the HHS. This site offers a very cool interactive tool that asks, “Who are you trying to help today?” and based on your answers directs you to the appropriate health information.

AHRQ, The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality at HHS, offers information on choosing quality, safe care by asking the right questions and comparing medical treatments. Next Steps After Your Diagnosis “offers general advice for people with almost any disease or condition.”

Hospital Compare allows you to compare hospitals on how well they treat heart attack, heart failure, and pneumonia.

State Government Associations like the California Office of the Patient Advocate provides quality ratings on health plans and physician groups.  

Insurance Company and Provider Websites

Insurers like Humana, Kaiser, and Aetna offer members who register on their websites health news, information, and tools customized to their health conditions. MyHumana says it offers “a personalized one-stop-shop of easy-to-read and convenient information.” The most complete insurer websites offer members electronic health records -- secure electronic storage of their health information.  Members can also take a health assessment and get feedback on steps they can take to stay healthy.  

The respected Mayo Clinic website and Aetna Intellihealth, with content developed by Harvard Medical School, provide guides to hundreds of diseases and conditions, symptoms, drugs, and supplements, as well as information for healthy living.

Websites Focusing on Specific Diseases

Alzheimer’s Association (with translated materials in many languages)

American Cancer Society (translated materials in Asian Languages & Spanish)

American Diabetes Association

PatientsLikeMe, a social networking site where members can share treatment and symptom information and learn real-world outcomes. The site has communities for a range of common and rare diseases.

Health Information Books

Libraries may carry some of these recommended books:

The Mayo Clinic Family Health Book

Healthwise Handbook: A Self-Care Manual For You

CDC Health Information for International Travel 2010: The Yellow Book

Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century

Your library can help you zero in on the specifics you need–or just browse among this wealth of information.


Photo credit: Palatine (Ill.) Public Library reference section.

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