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Itching for Information
Hazel Marshall

(Editors' Note: None of the images reproduced below have anything to do with the author!)

I have had an itchy finger for a number of weeks now. It seemed far too trivial a topic to bother a living breathing doctor with and so I typed the words ‘itchy finger’ into the BBC Health website and 122 choices possible causes popped on to my screen. Ten of these were directly relevant to fingers (and I was perturbed to find that the first match was for ‘scabies), but I couldn’t help myself from reading the further matches for ‘itchy’ and read about everything from itchy ears to itchy bottoms to ringworm. One fascinating hour later and I was itching all over.

Does using the web stop us from going to our doctor or does it just make us go with a list of symptoms as long as our (eczema ridden, but it’s all down to stress or maybe I’m allergic to my washing powder) arm. And does this then mean that we then take up even more of the doctors time as they have to refute all our beliefs before telling us what is actually wrong? And which website should we use?

The BBC website ( is excellent in a lot of ways. It is split into various sections such as women’s health, men’s health, kid’s health and health for the over 50s. It provides information and advice about leading a healthy lifestyle as well as about illnesses and the excellent ‘Ask the doctor’. It is incredibly easy to use and looks good as well, with a range of bright colours. Trivial point? I don’t think so. There’s nothing worse than looking at page after page of black type. Still on the lighter side, there is also a link about health in soaps. This looks at problems which have been highlighted throughout the week on programmes such as The Archers, Eastenders and Casualty. Not surprisingly, since it is linked to the BBC, this website is almost universally held as the best when it comes to actual health news.

I then linked into This site is maintained by two GPs and is primarily a link site. That is, it holds a wide range of links and information connecting to other sites rather than holding all the news themselves. I liked this site as it seemed to hold a great deal of useful information about support organisations. They also offered advice on complementary medicine and an excellent section on patient advocacy. My only problem was that I couldn’t get the keyword search function to work.

But what about the people who are supposed to provide our healthcare? When Aneurin Bevan set up the NHS in 1947, could he ever have imagined that we would look up our symptoms from the comfort of our own home at I was prepared to not like this website, maybe because we’re all so used to not expecting the NHS to provide an efficient service (through no fault of the actual workers, I hasten to add). But actually it’s incredibly good. Like the BBC site it is both proactive and reactive since it gives information on leading a healthy lifestyle, ie about drinking, smoking, stress as well as giving advice about illnesses. It is also very easy to navigate.

The section ‘conditions and treatments’ has a body map where you select the area that hurts and then follow through. I did this with a headache (am I the only person who always thinks a headache is worse than it is?) The only problem with this is that an enormous, and I do mean enormous, list of strange illnesses pops up, things I have never heard of, like Adrenoleukodystrophy and congenital ocular motorapraxia. Given that I just wanted some general advice this terrified me and I spent hours reading about horrific medical symptoms. My headache disappeared though.

There is no doubt that the NHS site is incredibly useful site if you need to do research on specific illnesses, particularly as it includes links to support organisations. It also provides a lot of information about what you should expect from the NHS. My one complaint is that when I typed in ‘itchy finger’ I first of all got no direct hit and then got information on how to brush my teeth.

But enough of our publicly funded websites. I wanted something different, something natural - something alternative. So I typed in ‘alternative medicine’ and ‘complementary medicine’ and got a rather strange selection of sites. Most of these were either research based (useful, but not what I was looking for) or for individual treatments. Which is, I suppose, not that surprising since there is no regulatory body for alternative medicine as a whole. Some therapies are regulated, some are not. I did find some all-encompassing sites, the best of which seemed to be This covered a range of the more regulated alternative therapies - acupuncture, Alexander Technique, homeopathy, reflexology, for example. While not being the most exciting web page I’ve ever seen, it is informative and very useful since once you click on a therapy, a page comes up describing what the therapy is, what it works best for (eg: reflexology is very good for anxiety, migraines, IBS amongst other things) and then, most usefully, carries a list of registered practitioners throughout the country.

I also found an excellent site at which covered the whole array of alternative medicines. Again this was a linking site which took you on to a range of other sites. But if you want to find out more about reiki or magnetic therapy before you rush off to a practitioner, this is the site for you. It not only links to other organisations but does a lot of the research for you. When I entered ‘reiki’ I found that I was looking at articles from the BMJ amongst others, saying what they thought about it. There are also great discussion sites and tips on how to find a good practitioner. The site is American, but the code of practices remain the same.

Are web based health sites worth using? Well, I am now a practising hypochondriac and spend hours reading about every trivial little symptom that I have ever had. It’s true what they say - a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Therefore, if you’re not sure what you’re looking for you’re maybe as well going to a doctor. But if you’re looking for support or information about something specific then there are a lot of excellent sites out there. But, after all this research, I, and my scabrous finger, are ready to check in at my favourite website - - for some well deserved rest and relaxation.

© Hazel Marshall 2001

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