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Be a savvy advocate for your own health
Be a smart advocate for your own health

 Doctors use the Internet, and patients can, too. But be wary of trying to diagnose yourself using the Web.
Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 6/7/2009

AS A PRIMARY-CARE doctor, I hereby give you, the reader, permission to look up health conditions on the Internet.

I know this may be surprising, since most docs are likely to seem a tad annoyed when you start an appointment off with "I read this online "

The Internet is both powerful and dangerous when used as a resource for information about health, wellness, diseases and treatments. So before you start surfing, let's make sure your board is ready to go.

Being "health literate" is what sets apart "good" patients from "bad." I have heard countless colleagues complain that the reason people don't get better is that they ignore a doctor's advice.

Why do people ignore medical advice? There can be many complex reasons, but one that is well researched is a phenomenon known as low health literacy.


I see this all the time in my practice: intelligent adults who do not know what medicines or doses they are taking, and also don't know the results of major tests or hospitalizations they have recently been subject to; details of important family history; or important preventive measures that are recommended to keep you healthy.

I do not judge, though. Health literacy is not systematically taught well-- high school health classes are a joke when we consider the breadth of what is involved in helping individuals become effective consumers of health care.

So what helps people become more health-literate? Often, people who have family members in health care learn that having a health advocate improves the care one receives. Others are self-motivated and read all about health from someone like Oprah's new BFF, Dr. Mehmet Oz. (His book, "You: The Smart Patient," is actually quite good.)


There is a high degree of personal responsibility in maintaining your health, and I think it is helpful to view your physician as your adviser and partner rather than a technician who will keep you rolling along without your effort. But do you know how to navigate the increasingly complex health care system? Do you know how to help your doctors take the best care of you?

Start with the basics. Here are some really important things you should be aware of:

Your past medical problems, current conditions, medications and doses

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"Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions."

--U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

In general, trust Web sites that end in .gov, .edu and .org (in that order) over any that end in .com or .net. This is not a perfect rule, but a good guiding principle. You want your health information and advice to come from someone who doesn't stand to make a profit off of you.

Beware of any sites that make a claim to miracle cures, or purport to have information "that your doctor won't share with you." I have met some questionable doctors in my day, but none who would intentionally withhold information from a patient that could alleviate pain and suffering.

--Dr. Christopher Lillis

Dr. Christopher Lillis is an internist with Chancellor Internal Medicine in Fredericksburg.