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Internet resources for what you need to know about NYC Health
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"Health" refers to the health issues facing the city, touching on everything from the mayor to Medicaid to managed care to mosquitoes.
The Context
New York City is one of the biggest public health challenges in the world. With 7 million residents--over 1 million of whom are uninsured--the city has the largest number of HIV cases and the largest number of intravenous drug users in the U.S. Efforts to contain a tuberculosis outbreak that threatened the city in the 1990's have been a major success--between 1992 and 1998, the deadly multi-drug resistant cases of TB declined by over 90 percent.

New York City has 20 public hospitals which served 1.5 million people in 1998 alone. Run by New York City's public Health and Hospitals Corporation, the hospital system now has a surplus of $21 million, following years of deficits and cutbacks.

The Reporter
Maia Szalavitz is author, with Dr. Joseph Volpicelli, of "Recovery Options: The Complete Guide: How You and Your Loved Ones Can Understand and Treat Alcohol and Other Drug Problems." She writes frequently on health, science and public policy for the New York Times, New York Magazine, the Village Voice, and other publications.

by Maia Szalavitz

Health Web Sites

(August '01) New York is one of the leading centers for medical research and has some of the best hospitals in the country. But even for New Yorkers, finding information about health on the Internet can be tricky. Some sources are unreliable; others are biased. Here are some tips for evaluating health information on-line, followed by a list of some good, general resources for New Yorkers who wish to research particular conditions or just live a healthy.

There are two main concerns regarding health sites:

1) Who is the source? When you visit a health Web site, check to see who sponsors it. Is it a doctor or a group of doctors with a particular agenda? A drug company? A government agency? A non-profit?

If it is a non-profit, is it a partisan group or a genuinely independent organization?

Any of these sources may be helpful, but be sure you know where a site is coming from as you consider the information it contains.

You can usually discover these biases by clicking "about this site" or "who we are" or "mission statement" and by checking their list of links and honors and how they promote themselves.

2) Science or anecdote? Many health sites-- particularly those about nutrition, diets and alternative or complimentary medicine-- base their claims on anecdotes, or stories about successes from individual patients or doctors.

Scientists have learned to be skeptical of such claims because they can easily be biased. For example, a doctor may unknowingly be in contact only with those for whom a treatment worked -- because the others went elsewhere when it did not. Or, his patients may not be typical of people with the condition -- and so while the treatment may work for this small sub-group, most patients will not be helped.

This is why double-blind placebo controlled trials published in a peer-reviewed journal are considered the "gold standard" in determining what is effective. And, even better than one double-blind published placebo-controlled trial is ten of them -- and even better than this is ten of them with a large number of patients in each one. The more evidence there is lined up on one side, the less likely it is that the results are due to chance rather than the effectiveness of the treatment.

Anecdotes are not bad -- they may signal that something works-- but they are not, in themselves, evidence of effective treatment.

If you keep these ideas in mind, you cannot go too far wrong in seeking useful health information.

Here are some good places to start:

Maia's Favorite Five Sites For Beginners:

  • New York City Department of Health - Includes health alerts (including West Nile info), information on restaurant sanitary conditions and information on various health-promotion programs.
  • New York State Department of Health - More health data for New Yorkers including information on how to sign up for Child Health Plus and Family Health Plus-- the insurance programs for those who are presently not covered by other plans.
  • Medscape - This site, aimed at doctors, allows you to search Medline, the database of medical journals, for free. Abstracts of most journal articles are available for free as well. Once you have some basic knowledge about a condition you are researching, you can look here to get a sense of what is going on in terms of study in the area. There is a companion consumer-focused site, CBSHealthWatch, which is linked.
  • American Cancer Society - Half of all Americans will face cancer at some point in their lives-- and the New York and Washington-based American Cancer Society web site provides a wealth of information for those dealing with the disease. Includes links to other major cancer sites and resources.
  • AIDS Information - A sort of "AIDS central" for New York city with links to major HIV/AIDS organizations and information sites.

Other Recommendations:

  • Quackwatch - Debunks medical scams and inflated claims made by "alternative" medical practitioners.
  • - A consumer health information site, affiliated with CNN.
  • Citizen Action - Healthcare is one of the primary focuses of this New York advocacy group. Includes information on New York's health plans for low income people lacking insurance.
  • Oncolink - An incredible research resource for cancer patients and others concerned about this disease.
  • National Alliance for the Mentally Ill - An organization of advocates for people with mental illness which includes information on treatment and support for various disorders like depression, bipolar disease and schizophrenia.
  • Insure Kids Now - Information on New York state's insurance program for poor kids and information on other state's policies, from the federal government and the governors' association.

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