The cyber-doctor is in - very in.
World Wide Web sites offering medical information are spreading as quickly as a virus, and everyone's getting infected. This month, for example, about 800,000 visitors are expected to visit Med Help International's vast online library. And that number is expected to double in the coming months.
For women with Internet access, this means they can join chat groups to discuss menopause. Look up the latest research on osteoporosis. Ask a doctor about mammograms, and receive an e-mail answer within hours.
"These (sites) can be very helpful," says local pediatrician Richard Judelsohn. "There are a lot of complaints from patients that they're not getting adequate information from their physicians. So these can be used to investigate or augment the information they already receive."
Distinguishing science from snake oil on the Net, however, is another matter, he warns.
"The consumer has to be very, very wary. If anything is suggested as a methodology of treatment on the Internet, it should always be reviewed with the patient's physician. If followed blindly, such information could be potentially harmful."
With that advice in mind, The Buffalo News went surfing for women's health sites. We landed on a few that looked good at first glance but, on closer inspection, proved to be nothing more than advertisements -- including one hawking a computerized menstrual planner.
Another had an online "psychiatrist" offering advice, but not her credentials.
After a byte-by-byte examination, we found six sites to recommend.
1. Obstetrics and Gynecology
Fourteen physicians make up the advisory board of this helpful site devoted to myriad physical and emotional health issues. Doctors write the articles, which include such recent offerings as "The Pap Test" and "Laparoscopy: What Is It, When Is It Done and What Can It Do?" There are book suggestions, an archive of New York Times women's health stories and chat rooms. "Ask the Woman Doctor" allows you to ask your health question and receive an e-mail reply.
2. Med Help International
Propelled by the frustrating experience of having to make decisions for her ailing mother without adequate information, Cindy Williams co-founded this site three years ago. Since then it has grown to be one of the most popular health-related sites. One of Med Help's most useful features is its impressive library, the largest online one of its kind, with information from such reputed sources as the National Institutes of Health, Columbia and Harvard Universities and the Mayo Clinic. How it works: Click on the medical library, type in the term you want to search, and you'll be guided to a medical glossary, up-to-date articles, graphics and information about support groups. (Note: This is not just for women.)
3. Breast Cancer Information Clearinghouse
This site is easy to follow, offering a list of toll-free numbers and hot lines, breast cancer-related topics indexed by subject, up-to-date information on relevant New York State legislation and heaps of other nicely presented information. The site is maintained by the New York State Education and Research Network.
4. Barnard/Columbia Women's Handbook
gopher://gopher.cc.columbia.edu:7 1/1 1/publications/women
Let's talk about safe sex, baby. And while we're at it, let's talk about eating disorders, body image, disabilities, sexuality, relationships, alcoholism and mental health. This text-only site consists of 54 chapters of frank, reliable information.
5. Women's Health Hot Line Home Page
In addition to articles about fitness and diet, medical journalist Charlotte Libov's online newsletters tackle those health issues often associated with men. Some headlines of issues past: "Young Women Not 'Immune' to Heart Disease" and "Colon Cancer: An Equal Opportunity Killer." She also includes a "new books" section and useful tidbits, such as where to receive a free mammogram. This is a site to check out when you want to learn what's new in women's health.
6. Power Surge: A Virtual Community for Women in "The Pause"
Two flashes of virtual lightning flash on the screen and -- zap! -- you're inside Power Surge, one of the rare women's health sites that combines solid information with snazzy graphics, humor and wit. The online brainchild of New York City writer Alice Lotto Stamm, Power Surge offers question-and-answer sessions with a variety of medical, health and exercise experts, including NBC News health and medical correspondent Robert Arnot, exercise guru Denise Austin and "Passages" author Gail Sheehy.