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Be a savvy advocate for your own health page 2
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.
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Date published: 6/7/2009

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Whether you have had an allergic reaction to any previous drugs

The surgeries have you had in your lifetime

A clear sense of who your primary-care doctor is

Your upcoming appointments and tests

The ailments that are common in your family, especially your parents and siblings, along with what may have caused the death of your immediate family members.

Some find that keeping all of this information handy makes each doctor visit seem like smooth sailing.

After mastering the basics, it's time to take the next step.

GOOD COMMUNICATION

You will get the most out of your encounters with doctors by communicating your symptoms accurately.

Doctors will use your description of symptoms and a physical exam to get them about 90 percent of the way to an accurate diagnosis. The X-rays and blood tests usually confirm a diagnosis, but will be directed only by your words.

My advice is to ask questions when you do not understand what a diagnosis means, or why tests are being ordered or medications prescribed. Ask about what to expect and how best to manage your health. Knowledge is what will help you manage your health.

INTERNET: FRIEND OR FOE?

While I said earlier that I encourage patients' self-directed Internet learning, indiscriminate use of the Web will drive even me nuts.

Your computer cannot diagnose you. Period. If you look up "headache, causes" not only will you probably soil yourself due to the myriad of life-threatening diagnostic possibilities, but you won't get any closer to an accurate answer.

Nothing will replace human beings when it comes to diagnosis, at least until "Star Trek" fantasies are realized with the invention of the handheld tricorder. Attempting to self-diagnose with the help of the World Wide Web can lead either to unnecessary panic or misplaced complacency, neither of which should seem acceptable to you.

However, the Internet is a great place to learn about what vaccines you should obtain and when (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at cdc.gov, has great information on recommended vaccines).

The Internet also can inform you about the recommended screening and preventive tests that will keep you healthy (see the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Web site, hhs.gov).

But most of all, the Internet can be a place to answer all of your questions about a given health condition you may have. Become an "expert" on your own health. If you are diagnosed with diabetes, hop online and learn all you can about diabetes. If your doctor diagnoses you with cancer, use the power of the Internet to educate yourself about it--this information will lead to new questions and less fear.

Better preparation will lead to more productive and fruitful encounters with the increasingly intimidating health care system.

Happy hunting to all my health-literate readers!

hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource: a top source of nutritional information cdc.gov/vaccines: a good source of vaccine information

medlineplus.gov or mayoclinc.com: detailed information on diseases

Dr. Christopher Lillis is an internist with Chancellor Internal Medicine in Fredericksburg. He can be reached at
Email: newsroom@freelancestar.com.


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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.