Health on the Web
A Google search for "cancer" returns 299 million results; narrow that to, say, "prostate cancer" and you still get 12.7 million. It's a vast, bewildering world out there, but here's a look at six of the most interesting and potentially useful online health resources. - JASCHA HOFFMAN
Created more than a decade ago by the National Library of Medicine, PubMed includes millions of citations from medical journals dating to the 1950s. Doctors and students have learned to rely on the database to track studies. Patients, on the other hand, may be overwhelmed by the flood of results: more than 500 abstracts crop up when the system translates a naïve query for "causes of bad breath" into "etiology of halitosis." But if you know what you're looking for, and how to make sense of it, PubMed is a power tool without peer. A free log-in allows easier filtering, and a new iPhone application holds the promise of a second opinion right there in the waiting room.
The art of diagnosis is subtle. But when it comes to skin conditions, sometimes the answer is right there in front of your eyes. Enter the Skin Disease Finder at visualdxhealth.com, a kind of Flickr for bites, boils, cysts, moles, rashes, sores, warts and more — even the hard-to-describe skin infections caused by MRSA. Drawn from an even larger visual library sold by Logical Images in Rochester, this free dermatological atlas will satisfy all but the most fiendish amateur skin detective. You can select a location as precise as scalp, cheek, toenail or “finger webspace,” or you can shoot the moon by clicking on “widespread rash.” Presto, a sort of lineup of skin diseases appears, with instantly recognizable mug shots that enable anyone to tell eczema from rosacea, shingles from ringworm, scabies from psoriasis. The whole thing is certainly more thrilling than a visit to the dermatologist’s office — especially if you don’t have a rash.
San Fransisco City Clinic
San Francisco City Clinic, which offers low-cost testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, is also a bracing and realistic source of information. Its front page comes on gently with a little box marked “About You.” This leads to a customized list of diseases one can get as, say, a middle-age transsexual who sleeps with both men and women. For those who would rather see all the risks at once, a handy chart of “S.T.D. basics” catalogs the infections that can be transmitted by nine kinds of sexual activity. Bay Area residents can consult an exhaustive catalog of local resources. For the rest of us there is the clinic’s “Dr. K,” whose advice columns reveal, for example, that two condoms are not better protection than one.
Looking for experimental treatment? With more than 25,000 open trials testing a dizzying variety of new drugs, surgeries and vaccines, this site may have something for everyone. The upside is bargain-priced treatment; inpatient volunteers can be well compensated. The downside is that you may be pumped full of an untested drug with serious effects. (You may get a placebo.) By and large, the trials sponsored by universities and the National Institutes of Health are more likely to be monitored for safety than those offered by private companies.
Patients Like Me
If you learned you had a life-changing illness, broadcasting it on the Internet might be the last thing on your mind. But PatientsLikeMe encourages people to do just that. Founded by Ben and James Heywood after their brother Stephen received a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease, the site is a kind of Facebook for the chronically ill. It holds thousands of profiles of patients living with diseases as diverse as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and H.I.V., with a special section for mood disorders like depression and anxiety. Patients can use slick visual tools to chart their symptoms over time, rate their drugs and treatments, and track their progress against fellow patients with a degree of transparency that borders on the voyeuristic. Users should be aware that the site shares data, stripped of names and other identifying material, with nonprofit groups, research hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.
It may be tough to get an appointment at the Mayo Clinic, which for over a century has set the standard for medical care in America. But it’s much easier to consult its encyclopedic site, which may be the most concise source of medical information on the Web. Unlike many other health sites, Mayo writes its own material, with a tone that manages to be both conversational and precise, straightforward and sympathetic. (“Suicide is the act of taking your own life. ... You may think suicide is a solution when, in fact, it’s not.”) The no-nonsense symptom checker, while remarkably simple to use, should probably be kept away from hypochondriacs. (Wheezing and drooling? You may have epiglottitis. Dizzy and stumbling? Might be ataxia.) The site could be easier to navigate, but the guide to ailments is so terse and authoritative that you may find yourself reading it for pleasure.