High-Tech Path to Health Awareness

LAWRENCE J. MAGID is a Silicon Valley-based computer analyst and writer

I'm not exactly a hypochondriac, but I do worry when I have an unexplained ache or pain. So, rather than lay up at night, I turn to my computer for medical advice.

No, my PC didn't go to medical school. But because it's equipped with a modem, I can use it to dial the Compuserve Information Service, (800) 848-8990, where I can search through several health databases.

For me, the most useful database is Health Database Plus. It lets you search through 160 lay and professional publications beginning with the January, 1989, issues. It's operated for Compuserve by Information Access Co., the same company that operates Compuserve's Computer Database Plus, Magazine Database Plus and Business Database Plus.

It's expensive to use, but it's cheaper than a visit to the doctor. I can live with the $27.50 per hour access charge (Compuserve's $12.50 per hour plus a $15-per-hour surcharge), but I get a little queasy about paying $1.50 per full-text article retrieved. Too bad it's not covered by health insurance.

Nevertheless, the information can be valuable, especially if you're the type who tends to put off going to a doctor or if you want in-depth information about your symptoms and possible condition.

I recently went through a bout of sinusitis and used the service to learn about possible causes and remedies. It didn't clear up my sinuses, but it helped me communicate with my doctor and evaluate various alternative therapies. I also used the service to read about the prescribed medicine. One article gave me a clear understanding about the potential side effects of the antihistamine that he prescribed. I read several useful articles and racked up about $15 in on-line charges.

I also used the service to research a recent article about carpal tunnel syndrome and other computer-related ailments. I got all the information I needed without having to drive to the library.

The database includes articles from more than 160 publications covering virtually every aspect of medicine, psychology, health and fitness. They are divided about equally between lay and professional journals. Lay journals include Consumer Reports Health Letter, the Edell Health Letter, Environmental Nutrition, FDA Consumer, Harvard Medical School Health Letter, Mothering, Nutrition Today, Prevention, Psychology Today, and Women's Sports and Fitness. Professional journals include the Journal of the American Medical Assn., the New England Journal of Medicine, American Journal of Cardiology, American Journal of Diseases of Children and the Annals of Internal Medicine.

You can search for articles that contain specific words or you can search for articles from a particular publication. When searching for a word or phrase, you can specify "keyword" (words occurring in article titles, subject headings, names or product names) or any words occurring in an article. Once you've entered your search criteria, you're presented with a list of articles that contain the words. You can display articles on your screen, print them or save them on your disk to be looked at or printed later.

Compuserve's Health menu serves as a gateway to several other health-related features, including AIDS Information, Cancer Information, Diabetes Forum, Disabilities Forum, Handicapped User's Database, Health & Fitness Forum, HealthNet, Human Sexuality, Information USA/Health, National Organization for Rare Disorders database and Medline.

Most of the health databases do not carry a surcharge, so all you pay is Compuserve's regular $12.50 access fee.

The rare disorders database has information on hundreds of diseases. Each entry includes synonyms, a general discussion of the disease, symptoms, affected population, related disorders, therapies and resources for more information.

The HealthNet database, a menu-driven reference library, is organized by disorders and diseases, symptoms, drugs, surgeries/tests/procedures, home care and first aid, obstetrics/reproductive medicine and ophthalmology/eye care. You search by working through a series of menus. Select "Surgeries/Tests/Procedures," and you see a menu that lists the various parts of the body. Select one and you get to another menu where you can select specific procedures. The information is easy to understand and reasonably thorough.

The Human Sexuality Forum offers information on all aspects of sexuality, including family planning, gay/lesbian/bisexual concerns and sexually transmitted diseases. Advice is offered from professionals in the fields of urology, gynecology, psychiatry and psychology, as well as the many lay people who visit the forum.

The cancer forum and the diabetes forum serve as nationwide support groups for people whose lives are affected by those diseases. You can ask and answer questions and participate in regular "live" conferences in which you interact with experts and others who respond immediately in "real time."

I spent a few minutes browsing the cancer forum, where I read several messages about a fellow member who had recently died. Other messages expressed hope, offered prayers and concern and, in some cases, passed on good news and congratulations.

For me, browsing through the various medical support and self-help forums has been an emotional and enriching experience. I spend most of my working time dealing with the sanitized world of business computing and tend to get a little jaded about the "latest and greatest" that technology offers. The Compuserve health forums are about people--not machines. It's a concrete example of an enabling technology that is bringing people together. It gives me hope and makes me feel good about living in the Information Age.

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