Outlook healthy for health care Web sites, but use caution

Web sites are powerful resources for researching medical conditions and networking with other patients, as long as you're cautious with your private data.

Elsa Wenzel
4 min read
WebMD's symptom analysis is nice.
WebMD's symptom analysis is nice.

Although you can't singlehandedly fix the woes of national health care that are spotlighted in the movie Sicko, many free Web sites at least put a bit more power in your hands to manage personal wellness or a medical crisis. Just share your data wisely.

WebMD (a Webware 100 winner) offers videos, virtual support groups, quizzes, blogs, doctor lookups, and a spiffy symptom checker. Look up drugs by a pill's color, imprint or shape. WebMD won't spam you, but as with its competitors, if you subscribe to e-mail updates about some unappetizing ailment, then prepare for related tidbits in your in-box. It's too bad that some ads, like those for toothpaste, are hard to distinguish from the rest of WebMD.

Although WebMD offers more activities, HealthAtoZ is also helpful, letting you chat with nurses and create a personal health record with feeds from your insurance claims. But community features, blogs, and videos are lacking.

RevolutionHealth pivots around a treatment portfolio you create in addition to blogging and rating doctors and hospitals. You can pose questions anonymously to the community. Talking to experts about care and insurance costs $129 annually, or is free for a month.

A newer site, TauMed (also here), enables you to create a medical library of clips from the Web, as well as a Health Space profile to add doctors and collect "friends." The question-and-answer service is novel--although it lacks a stealth mode in case you're curious about something blush-worthy.

The ad-free, clean, and less peppy FamilyDoctor and HealthFinder are excellent and encyclopedic. You can dig deeper into the latest medical studies via the National Library of Medicine's Pub Med and Medline, which also offers drug interaction lookups.

For health care quests, social networking takes on a deeper dimension beyond collecting friends, songs and party plans on MySpace or Twitter and the like. Ill people from around the world can compare symptoms anonymously online, share suffering or healing tales, and tip off each other about treatments.

PatientsLikeMe hosts support communities for people dealing with ALS, Parkinson's disease, or multiple sclerosis. You can create quick graphs that track prescription regimens and symptoms. Hopefully similar tools are in the works for a wider array of conditions. I like PatientsLikeMe's Answer Network, a Q&A service that delivers data in novel ways. For instance, bar charts display other members' top reasons for discontinuing specific drugs.

Patients Like Me helps you track complex prescriptions and symptoms.
Patients Like Me helps you track complex drug dosages and symptoms.

In addition to linking you with strangers, the Internet provides gathering spaces for family and friends. I've used theStatus, which partners with hospitals, to see from San Francisco how a dear family friend in Ohio fared after heart surgery. TheStatus feels like it sounds--a no-nonsense check-in service for the straight dope on an urgent medical situation. You can leave well wishes, too. BabyStatus is new.

I have another close family friend whose ongoing medical care requires regular attention from people in far-flung places. We tried to set up a Web-based spreadsheet to track our visits via Google Docs & Spreadsheets (more here), but only the few geeks among us could get past the awkward document-sharing steps.

We turned next to CarePages, which was built for our purpose. But its colorful design somehow didn't feel appropriate for tracking the care of a retired mathematics professor who would kick back with paperbacks about string theory in his free time. But CarePages seems a good fit for the million families, particularly those with young children, it has served. Opening a page is uncomplicated. There are sections for pediatric cancer, brain injury, and much more. CarePages is now part of RevolutionHealth.

Similarly, CaringBridge steps you through selecting one of several age-appropriate designs for a patient. You can share photo galleries, a guest book and a journal. But while I picked privacy options, CaringBridge displayed my password in clear type on its site. At least nobody was looking over my shoulder. Security sin aside, I can see why the nonprofit site's ease of use has led to success for more than a decade with some 64,000 patient sites.

With any highly personalized service dealing with sensitive topics, security should be paramount. It's hard to peek inside these sites without registering. You might want to set up a separate e-mail account for medical matters first, and never use your real name as a user ID.

The Truste seal marking WebMD, FamilyDoctor, HealthAtoZ, and CarePages shows that they use the same encryption as bank sites (so does theStatus). I like WebMD's privacy policy best for telling you how you can ask to yank your data from its servers.

All of these Web sites pledge not to send all of your data with third parties--except for John Law. No patient-client privilege here. If you are hiding a medical condition that you don't want unearthed by a search warrant, then you have the nearly impossible option of accessing these sites with a PC and IP address separate from anything else you do in life, also while using strong security software. That's still no guarantee that you won't leave personal cookie crumbs.

On that note, wouldn't it be nice if you could find what's inside all of your medical files from over the years, lickety-split, just like Googling yourself? What if you could connect that information to your genetic code? Such dreams of convenience would trigger obvious privacy nightmares. As Web-based health care tools become easier and richer to use, striking the balance between approachability and security will become trickier.