The Patient's Internet Handbook
Robert Kiley, Elizabeth Graham
Royal Society of Medicine Press: London, UK, 2002, 302 pp; indexed, illustrated
ISBN: 1-85315-498-9; Price £9.95 (Paperback)
Britain is arguably the most secretive of Western democracies and has traditionally relied on blind faith in experts. However, we now live in an age when patients and their families thirst for medical information. Indeed, they have every right to know and one of the fastest moving sources is the Internet because updating of Web sites can so easily be made. Health encyclopaedias and other books - even those available in large libraries - cannot compete. Patients often derive comfort through Web sites devoted to particular illnesses where experiences can be shared and help obtained. So what's the problem? If you use the Internet you may not know who exactly is behind the site providing the information. Some companies fund sites for support groups where the condition is treatable by their drugs. More dangerous are the myriads of sites with quack cures or dangerous advice. Currently the European Commission is proposing to relax the law that prohibits drug companies from advertising prescription drugs directly to the public - at present they can only target health professionals. Such a change could mean a wave of biased information appearing. Substituting blind faith in doctors for blind faith in opinions and advice on the Internet is a recipe for disaster.
The Patient's Internet Handbook is a superb source of help. Firstly it is eminently readable and secondly it provides a reliable means and direction to sensible health information on the Internet. Obviously, the Internet should never replace a consultation with an appropriate physician but possession of the background information will sharpen up patient and doctor alike and both should benefit. The Patient's Internet Handbook explains, with examples, how health information specific to patients' health needs can be obtained. The first section of the book explains how to connect to the Internet, the use of browsers, saving information, the value of search engines and use of Web directories. The second section describes how to find health information, searching and printing through medical databases (such as MEDLINE, PubMed, Cochrane and CCI (Complementary and Alternative Medicine Citation Index)). The latter is useful for topics such as acupuncture; indeed further on in the book there is a chapter dedicated to complementary and alternative medicine on the Internet. The thorny subject of discussion lists and newsgroups comprises a separate chapter and their value is often evident in the support messages from others with the same or similar medical problems; the use of Netscape Navigator® and Internet Explorer®/Outlook Express® to access newsgroups is explained. Drug information constitutes a separate chapter which considers: The Electronic Medicine Compendium (which provides electronic versions of the official patient Information Leaflet and the Summary of Product Characteristics for each of the 2500 medicines licensed for use in the UK), the US Pharmacopoeia, Pharminfo and the British National Formulary. The third section is focussed more on the services and information obtainable. The UK National Health Service features here together with information about pregnancy, childbirth and infant care. It even suggests sites to help choose a name for your baby.
The final section, most importantly, examines the quality of health information on the Internet, and provides guidance on how to evaluate safely the material accessed. It warns about misinformation, anecdotal evidence biased information, cure-all remedies, lifestyle scams and frankly dangerous devices. The authors, mindful of the way books of this kind are soon out of date, have set up a Web site (www.patient-handbook.co.uk) which provides locations and addresses for sites which have moved. It includes a facility for searchers to automatically receive notice of URL (uniform resource locator) changes by e-mail. The only mention of anaesthesia or pain relief is in connection with giving birth and readers are directed to the Web sites of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists; other sites mentioned relate to induction of labour, overdue delivery and Caesarean section. Hopefully a little more might be added to a future edition, or to the book's Web site, about pain relief after surgery and the processes of regional and general anaesthesia.
The Patient's Internet Handbook is beautifully produced and printed (the sensible and readable typeface is marvellous) and highly recommended reading for anyone, particularly patients, who wants sensible guidance about searching the Internet on matters of health.
A. P. Adams