A survey of online assistance for non-medics seeking to understand medical conditions and terminology
It’s almost five years since we last surveyed the available free medical information online, so it’s due a checkup.
The sites reviewed this month are not specifically medico-legal, or designed to locate medical expert witnesses. However, they may well assist in gaining an initial understanding of medical or pharmacological terms in medical records or reports, whether for personal injury, social security, additional support needs (education law), criminal injuries compensation or, of course, medical negligence.
I confess up front to being a big fan of the BBC website as a whole. To my mind it entirely justifies the licence fee in itself. I was not aware of this part until a surgeon friend recommended it recently. It is not as in-depth as some of the other sites reviewed, but there is still a wealth of well-presented information.
The front page has a news and articles focus, with prominent links to health-related items from BBC News, and to health programmes (radio and television). There are also links to higher-profile medical topics and material on these, such as sexual health, or weight loss.
However, the site has hidden depths. Clicking on the various tabs provides very useful medical information expressed in accessible language, complete with useful links.
The search feature allows you to search not only by particular medical condition, but also by part of the body affected, age, and gender, which is very helpful too.
Not only is the web address very memorable; the website is very good as well. There is an NHSScotland site too, SHOW (Scotland’s Health on the Web: www.scot.nhs.uk), but it seemed more interested in displaying its latest press releases than health information. The main NHS page was, to my mind, much more user-friendly.
The information about “You and the NHS” will only be of use in England, but for our purposes you are only one click away from the business end of the website: the Health Encyclopaedia, the Symptoms Checker and the Medicines Information.
I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of information available on a simple search for a named condition – and there are literally thousands listed. For each you get most or all of: a video introduction where an expert discusses symptoms and treatment options; a longer overview with sections on symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment, self-help and complications; useful links (internal and external); case studies, including video testimony and user comments; links to information on relevant medicines; and information on clinical trials.
The “map of medicine” also offered, which appears to be some kind of flowchart used by doctors to determine the best treatment options, is only available to English and Welsh residents, and I was unable to find an equivalent on SHOW. A shame, because it looked very interesting.
The symptom checker actually passes you through to NHS Direct and suggests that north of the border you use the NHS 24 service (www.nhs24.com). This is therefore not so useful for legal casework, but quite handy if you want to know whether to phone the out-of-hours GP.
Medicine information offers an A-Z of medication, both brand and generic names and over-the-counter as well as prescription remedies. Thousands of medicines are listed, and the site differentiates between the conditions being treated as well as different preparations. Information includes possible interactions with other medicines, or alcohol, and possible side effects.
Speaking of side effects, I draw to your attention the Yellow Card scheme (yellowcard.mhra.gov.uk), which is “helping to make medicines safer”. This allows anyone – even lawyers – to register side effects experienced while taking medication. Run by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (www.mhra.gov.uk), the information is used to analyse whether there are new or unknown risks for particular medicines, and ensure they are used to minimise risk and maximise patient welfare.
If I had a “website of the month”, NHS Choices would definitely be it.
There are a number of other websites in similar vein (pun definitely intended):
Claims to be the UK’s leading independent health website. It’s very good and has a large database of conditions, medicines etc, and a separate section for examinations, explaining the purpose of various tests a client may have been referred for. The site tends to have more in the way of articles than simple information.
These two sites do substantially the same job: providing information about various medicines in response to search queries by visitors. RxList gives more information, but Safe Medication has a free PDF called My Medicine List, a useful aide mémoire which can be completed online. Both are based in the US, so care must be taken in relation to different names of medicines which may be used.
Who writes this column?
The website review column is written by Iain A Nisbet of Govan Law Centre e: email@example.com
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