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Consumer Health Information: The New Third Party In The Exam Room

It was sometime in the mid-nineties that parents started showing up in my office with reams of paper. Inkjet printouts of independently unearthed information pulled from AltaVista and Excite. Google didn’t exist. In the earliest days of the Web, information was occasionally leveraged by families as a type of newfound control.

A young father and his inkjet printer

One case sticks clearly in my mind. It was that of a toddler with medically unresponsive acid reflux and chronic lung disease. After following the child for some time, the discussion with the family finally moved to the option of a fundoplication (anti-reflux surgery). On a follow-up visit the father had done his diligence and appeared in the office with a banker box brimming with printed information. He had done his homework and his volume of paper was a credible show of force.

At the time in Houston, the Nissen and Thal fundoplication were the accepted fundoplication procedures in children. Deep from the bottom of one of the boxes, the father produced a freshly-reported method of fundoplication from Germany. He had compared the potential complications with other types of fundoplication and this was the procedure he wanted.

What he didn’t understand was that an experimental technique used on a limited numbers of adults didn’t necessarily represent the best option for his toddler. I gave it everything I had but didn’t get very far. The tenor of his argument was slightly antagonistic. Ultimately there was nothing more I could do. I deferred the remainder of the discussion to one of our best “talking” surgeons, but knew the father wouldn’t get the time and consideration that I had offered.

I never saw the child again. As they say, the father voted with his feet. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

How Doctors Feel About Patients Who Google Their Symptoms

Many doctors roll their eyes whenever patients bring in a stack of research they printed out, stemming from a Google search of their symptoms. A piece by Dr. Zachary Meisel on describes a familiar scenario:

The medical intern started her presentation with an eye roll. “The patient in Room 3 had some blood in the toilet bowl this morning and is here with a pile of Internet printouts listing all the crazy things she thinks she might have.”

The intern continued, “I think she has a hemorrhoid.”

“Another case of cyberchondria,” added the nurse behind me.

It’s time to stop debating whether patients should research their own symptoms. It’s happening already, and the medical profession would be better served to handle this new reality.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 61 percent of patients turn to the web to research health information. That number is from 2009, so presumably it’s higher today. Health information online is akin to the Wild, Wild West. Stories from questionable sites come up on Google as high — or higher — than information from reputable institutions. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at*

Good Health Information Can Save Lives

My colleagues at Harvard Health Publications and I have a mission: To provide accurate, reliable information that will help readers live healthier lives. We work hard to fulfill that mission, and the feedback we get from folks who read our newsletters, Special Health Reports, books, and online health information indicates we are on the right track. Every so often we hear something from a reader that makes me especially proud of the work we do.

This letter was recently sent to the editor of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch:

One of your mailings undoubtedly saved me a lot of grief. (My kids, anyway.) I was aware of a woman’s heart attack symptoms being different from a man’s, and your brochure contained a paragraph confirming that. Early in June I was packing for a trip to celebrate my brother’s 90th birthday, at the same time a ditching project was being done in my back lot. Trying to deal with several matters at the same time is a talent I’ve outgrown, at 88, so didn’t think too much of the sudden fatigue and vague aches I felt in jaw & arms. I crashed for a nap in my recliner, felt OK afterwards, and figured it was just stress. The next day I was ready to leave, but got to thinking of those symptoms, and the fact the brochure had arrived at just that time, and wondered if it was more than coincidence and maybe I should pay attention? Didn’t much like the idea of something happening out in the middle of nowhere, so took myself to the fire hall where an EMT was on duty. He ushered me into the ambulance, did an EKG, and soon I was being helicoptered on doctor’s orders to St. Joseph’s Hospital. There I had 3 stents installed, and they apparently are doing their job. Thank you! Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Cancer Prevention: How To Sift Through The Headlines

Guest post submitted by MD Anderson Cancer Center

Most of us can’t keep up with all the new ways to avoid cancer. Thanks to the Internet, we now have an unlimited supply of cancer knowledge at our fingertips. But, how can we filter out the good, the bad and the questionable?

Below are steps to help you tease out the facts when reading that next big news story on preventing cancer.

Says who?

Don’t just take the writer’s word for it. Dig a little deeper to find out the source behind the hype. The American Cancer Society says you should ask yourself these questions when reading an article:

  • Was this a press release from a company announcing a new breakthrough in cancer prevention?
  • Was it a report from a clinical study that was given at a scientific conference?
  • Was it a report from a study that was published in a respected medical journal?
  • Where was the study done? What do you know about the research centers that conducted and sponsored the study?

Knowing the answers to these questions can help you decide on where you need to go to seek more details about the study findings. Visit the source of the information to learn more about how this new substance or method was tested. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Health in 30*

Friends And Searching For Health Information Online

Turning to friends for online information is the hot topic within the Web world, and in Monday’s New York Times Technology and Business section, Jenna Wortham writes about how “Search Takes a Social Turn.”

Online sites are taking notice of what people like. Web companies are trying to make searching online for information more useful by tapping into the inner thoughts of what people like:

After a decade when search engines ruled supreme — tapping billions of Web pages to answer every conceivable query — many people now prefer getting their online information the old-fashioned way: by yakking across the fence.

Turning to friends is the new rage in the Web world, extending far beyond established social networking sites and setting off a rush among Web companies looking for ways to help people capitalize on the wisdom of their social circles — and to make some money in the process.

Listening and communicating

Listening and communicating with our friends can prove to be invaluable at times, and often they are our springboards for sharing our latest woes or trumpeting our successes. Whatever the case, friends are ruling the social networking world and frankly their opinion matters. Friends can be invaluable, and the geniuses behind new technology companies are taking notice and creating online sites focused on what friends are sharing with friends. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Health in 30*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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