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A click away, a wealth of information on health

London, Nov. 4 (Reuters): When Alexis Haines learned she had breast cancer, one of the first things she did was to search the Internet for information about her illness.

Instead of relying on doctors, her family, friends and books, Haines and millions of other people like her are turning to the World Wide Web.

With about 82 million sites popping up on a word-search for health, nearly 13 million for cancer and more than nine million for AIDS, the Internet provides an overwhelming array of facts and figures on virtually every condition that afflicts humans.

“It’s part of the toolbox that I used to get through this,” said Haines, a 49-year-old Londoner.

She trawled through scientific Web sites, scoured cancer help pages and joined chat rooms to learn as much as she could about her cancer, alternative treatments, nutrition and the best way to defeat it.

“When you get cancer you want to find out as much information as possible and then you get to a point where you are scaring yourself and you have to stop.”

Gone are the days when people sat back and waited for their doctors to tell them what was wrong with them and what to do about it. Patients are taking an active role in their healthcare, arming themselves with information and bringing it to their physicians.

On average, 32 per cent of Europeans and 53 per cent of Americans use the Internet to look for health information, according to a survey by analysts Datamonitor. “The majority of consumers get their information from portals. They type in their symptoms or a particular condition and, based upon the hits they get, they look through that,” said David Deon, the author of a Datamonitor report on Internet use.

When Haines began her Internet search she got more than she expected. “The first thing I did was put in breast and I actually got some porno sites,” she said.

But despite the odd surprise, Deon says the Internet has not only helped people become better informed about what ails them, it has also changed the doctor-patient relationship.

“There was an imbalance in the amount of information available to patients and physicians. With the dawn of the Internet age consumers have access to this information,” he explained.

“It helps bring the patient up to speed. It empowers the patient to be able to be more proactive in their healthcare.”

Nick James, a cancer specialist at Birmingham University and the founder of a British cancer help site has first-hand experience of how the Web has helped patients and doctors.

“It’s easier having a conversation with someone who is informed. You just shift the conversation to a different level.”

About 10 per cent of the mostly elderly cancer sufferers he deals with use the Internet themselves for information and roughly 45 per cent had someone search the Web for them.

“Most Web usage is by proxy — somebody else finds it for them. Overwhelmingly that is friends and family. In a small percent of cases it is a doctor or a nurse,” he said. “People who look for information strenuously are younger people who have difficult (health) problems.”

The insatiable appetite for health information is reflected in the popularity of the popularity of the Web site (www.cancerhelp.org.uk) he started seven years ago. “The traffic on the Web site has gone up and up and up. This time last year we were getting 700,000 hits a month. In August we were up to 7.8 million hits for one month.”

Up to 500,000 pages are downloaded from the site each month.

Despite a plethora of similar sites on health information and cancer in the US, 30-40 per cent of traffic on the site is American — reflecting the quality of information it provides for patients.

James said a range of factors separate the best health sites from the mediocre ones. At the top of the list is accuracy, credibility, accessibility and readability. The best sites are easy to navigate and allow patients to select the information they want and to ignore the rest.

“My impression from what patients bring into the clinic from the Internet is that it is mostly appropriate,” he said.

”I think the people who use the Internet are good at sorting out information themselves so they can see what is sensible and what isn't.”

Deon has no doubts that the Internet has raised awareness about health and cites“cyberchondriacs”, people who search intensively throughout the Internet for health information, as an example.

”People who would not typically call their physician are being more proactive and taking measures to get treatment,” he said.

Haines is so convinced of the benefits of the Internet she is planning to set up her own Web site so women like her, who have a genetic mutation that increases their chances of developing the breast cancer, can be spared some the anguish she experienced and benefit from what she has learned.

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