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The Internet Is Becoming One-Stop Shopping for Health Help

(HealthDay News) -- People regularly turn to the Internet for games and gossip, news and entertainment, essential information and high weirdness.

And now, apparently, for their health as well.

A number of successful online medical interventions have been reported in recent months, helping folks quit smoking, lower their blood pressure and deal with any number of ailments.

New York City cardiologist Dr. Nieca Goldberg figures it's a great trend, as long as people are going to reliable and trusted sources for help.

"I think it is the wave of the future and, theoretically, it seems like a great idea," said Goldberg, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association, a clinical associate professor of medicine and medical director of the Women's Heart Program at New York University Langone Medical Center and author of Dr. Nieca Goldberg's Complete Guide to Women's Health. "There could be multiple interactions with patients that are brief and effective."

Online interventions have spanned a variety of medical issues. One program, for instance, used Internet and telephone interactions with heart attack survivors and cardiac patients to help improve their heart health. A study found that participants' blood pressure and cholesterol levels fell, more of them quit smoking and they were one-third less likely to die than cardiac patients who did not receive the attention.

Several programs have popped up to help smokers quit. An analysis of 22 clinical trials found that Internet- and computer-based smoking cessation programs gave smokers nearly twice the chance of successfully quitting than if they had tried to quit without help.

Those successes have led the University of Illinois at Chicago to spearhead a $2.9 million federal effort to encourage young adults to use proven online smoking cessation programs.

Alcoholics also can find online support. A Dutch study found that one in five excessive drinkers who used an online self-help Web site to help them with their problem reported that they had lowered their alcohol intake to levels less likely to cause health problems.

And chronic conditions such as psoriasis also have been shown to be helped by online interventions. One study in Boston found that half of the users of online psoriasis support groups believed that the quality of their lives had improved, and two in five reported improvement in the severity of their psoriasis.

In some instances, the Internet also provides "nudges" to help push people into healthy habits. One worksite e-mail health program developed by Kaiser Permanente, for instance, provided participants with weekly e-mails and mid-week reminders that set personalized health goals for them based on an earlier survey they had filled out. They were encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables, lower their intake of fats and sugars, and exercise more.

A study of the program found significant health improvements among people who received the e-mails. They were, in fact, eating better and exercising more.

Even those with advanced fitness goals can receive online assistance. The magazine Runner's World currently offers online training programs featuring personal advice from world-class runner Bart Yasso.

Dr. Robert Mallin, an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, said such online programs could appeal to people who don't like going to doctors, therapists or support groups for help with their problems.

"There's certainly an advantage to having face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball contact, but I think also people who would never step into a doctor's office or a room with a support group will explore those things online," said Mallin, a spokesman for the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Online support groups, for example, allow people to gather information and communicate with others who have a similar problem while retaining their anonymity. "You don't have to participate," Mallin said. "People don't even have to know you're there."

However, both Goldberg and Mallin voiced concerns, too.

Goldberg wants to see large-scale studies of the effectiveness of these online programs before they are pursued to such an extent that they supplant regular modes of health care.

"When there's a concern about cost containment, we have to make sure the cost containment occurs within the context of quality care," she said. "This is a great idea, but I don't think we're 100 percent there yet."

Mallin worries about people getting bad information from Web sites.

"The biggest worry everyone has about health information on the Web is how accurate it is," he said. "I always ask my patients to run something by me they've read on the Internet or on one of those chat sites."

SOURCES: Nieca Goldberg, M.D., clinical associate professor of medicine and medical director, Women's Heart Program, New York University Langone Medical Center, New York City; Robert Mallin, M.D., professor, Department of Family Medicine, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, S.C.