Forget that dusty encyclopaedia of family medicine and turn to the web for health advice
We have this friend who somehow managed to whack himself in the nose with a tennis racquet recently. It's easily done, it's just that we - sorry he - got the angle a bit wrong. Anyway, our friend went to see his GP, but couldn't get an appointment.
Fortunately, the internet came to the rescue and a quick browse of the NHS Direct website gave our friend the address of his local NHS Walk In centre, where they had him fixed up in a jiffy.
The medical resources on the internet aren't merely of use in medical emergencies, though. There's a lot of general medical information online that you can use to sort out minor aches and pains. You can also use the web to find out about all sorts of illnesses, or to simply get information on healthy living so that you can hopefully avoid getting ill in the first place.
National web service
NHS Direct Online is by no means the only useful medical website on the internet but is the obvious first port of call for any medical information or help you may need. It is, of course, the online version of NHS Direct, the telephone information service that was set up to try to take some of the strain off overburdened GPs and Accident and Emergency wards.
The first thing we must stress is that if you're feeling seriously ill and think you need immediate treatment you should either ring the NHS Direct Helpline (0845 4647) for details of your local Walk In centre or Accident and Emergency ward or, if you're too ill to get there yourself, you should just go straight ahead and dial 999 for an ambulance.
However, in many less urgent cases the NHS Direct Online site actually works better than the telephone service, as it allows you to sit down and browse through the information at your own pace.
The information on the website is organised into four main sections. For the casual browser, there's a Health Encyclopaedia, which is the online equivalent of the old fashioned compendium of family medicine. You can browse through an alphabetical index of topics or look up general subject areas. The Top 5 topics section on common ailments also makes interesting reading.
To find out how to treat symptoms, take a look at the site's Self Help Guide. This includes an alphabetical list of symptoms that you can skim through quickly, or alternatively you can use the 'body menu' diagram to indicate which part of your body is affected.
If you still need treatment you can use the Local Information Database to find out what medical services are available in your area. This database includes GPs and hospitals, Walk In centres (where you don't need an appointment) and other services such as opticians and dentists.
There's also an email option to send off your medical enquiries. However, you can wait up to five working days for a reply so this is obviously only useful for less serious medical problems. You can also set up a system of reminders to tell you when you've got a doctor's appointment, or to help you keep track of a course of medicine.
One day you may even be able to get prescriptions sorted out over the internet as well. There's a website called Pharmacy 2U that runs an electronic prescription-management service for delivering prescription drugs. However, you can only use this service if your GP has already signed up for it and there are currently only a few dozen GP surgeries in the UK that have done so.
Finally, you may want to refer to the Best Treatment Guide. This is actually a link that takes you to a separate website called Best Treatments and provides information about treatments for various illnesses. The site is best used as a source of information for people who have already seen a doctor and who are being treated for an illness, or who are about to undergo tests or an operation, and want more information.
Auntie knows best
Another very good site funded by TV licence fees rather than taxpayers' money is the Health section of the BBC website. This site has all the basic stuff you might expect, such as an A-Z list of common illnesses, but the real difference between it and NHS Direct Online is that the BBC's approach is much more lifestyle-oriented.
Rather than merely listing symptoms and conditions, the site has sections looking at health issues for men and women, for people over 50 and for people suffering from specific illnesses such as asthma or rheumatism.
Working on the basis that prevention is the best cure, the BBC site also puts a lot of emphasis on healthy living, with plenty of information about diet and exercise to ensure that you stay as healthy as possible. All sections include links to other websites, including charities and self-help groups that deal with a wide range of illnesses.
There are various tools on offer too, such as a calculator for determining your Body Mass Index and a quiz for working out life expectancy. One of the most popular features is the ability to send in email questions to the BBC's resident doctors, currently the well-known media medics Rob Hickman and Trisha MacNair.
Unfortunately, they can't answer every single email they get sent but the site does have an archive of all the letters that have been answered, so it's quite possible that you may be able to find a letter from someone who's had a similar problem.
Supporting the information on the BBC site is a wide range of message boards and chat rooms, where you can discuss your medical problems with other people. A trouble shared is a trouble halved, so the saying goes, and for many people the ability to talk to fellow sufferers is important to their recovery, providing much-needed moral support as well as practical advice on how to cope with illness.
Portal sites such as Yahoo and MSN also have their own health sections, along with discussion groups and support groups. Yahoo Groups is a particularly good place to start. You can get help for all sorts of problems here, from teen issues to bereavement, depression and even computer game addiction.
Many of these discussion groups may focus on alternative or complementary medicines and this is a tricky area to deal with. Many practitioners of traditional Western medicine simply dismiss all alternative therapies as quackery but there's no doubt that treatments such as acupuncture and homeopathy are gaining greater acceptance all the time.
If you are interested in an alternative therapy you could ask around in some of the self-help groups and see what sites are recommended by other people. Yahoo also has its own listings of alternative medicine sites, including a number that we'd never even heard of before, such as 'apitherapy' (using honey as a medicine) and 'buteyko' (an oriental breathing technique designed to control asthma).
Remember, though, that while another person's symptoms might be similar to yours, their condition might be very different. When browsing through these sites remember to start with the UK Yahoo site as this will point you first towards UK-based websites before branching out onto other sites around the world.
You could also look at accreditation schemes such as Health On The Net (see below for more information) to locate some of the more respectable alternative medicine websites, such as the National Centre For Complementary Medicine or the Alternative Medicine Foundation.
The National Centre For Complementary Medicine is also listed by Yahoo as one of the most popular alternative medicine sites, so it's probably as good a place to start as any.
You could also take a look at the Which? Report on Alternative Medicine, which covers a wide range of alternative health products and services. You normally have to subscribe to the Which? website to read its reports but you can currently take advantage of a free 30-day trial service, which allows you to read a few reports without having to cough up any cash.
We've focused on mainstream organisations such as the NHS and BBC in this feature, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that there are more than 10,000 websites on the internet that offer medical information and advice.
Needless to say, you should treat the information on many medical websites with caution, especially when it comes to alternative therapies. The WHO is trying to establish a new set of web addresses that end with .health, such as www.nhsdirect.health.
These new .health websites would all be approved by the WHO itself so you'd know that they provide reliable information. Unfortunately, the ghastly bureaucracy involved in organising the internet address system means that it could be years before .health website addresses start to appear.
In the meantime, Health On The Net runs its own accreditation scheme. The website has its own search engine so you can type in a word such as 'homeopathy' and get a list of accredited web sites that cover that topic.
Websites offering information about health and medicine are among the most common sites on the internet. A quick search on Google or any other search engine will give you a list of thousands of such sites, but for people based in the UK it really makes sense to use those run by well-known UK organisations such as NHS Direct or the BBC as a starting point.
Not only are these reliable sources of information but, in the case of NHS Direct, you've got the vital option of being able to pick up the phone and speak to someone.
You'll need to be a bit more selective when looking at websites that deal with alternative medicine, but checking with portal sites such as Yahoo or the Health On The Net accreditation scheme should point you in the right direction. Whatever your ailment, there are information sites and support groups that can make life easier for you.
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