Health writer and editor Hilly Janes shows you how to avoid Doctor Google-induced panic with the most trustworthy health advice sites, apps and books
Once upon a time every home would have a family health encyclopaedia, new mother-and-baby books were delivered regularly, the latest diet would top the new-year bestseller lists and a ‘groundbreaking’ guide to fighting this or saving that would often hit the shelves.
The internet and mobiles have changed all that, and the web is now our primary source of health information. It’s good that everyone can now keep up with new developments in medical research and share it via social media platforms, but as anyone who’s ever asked Dr Google a health question knows, the web throws up a bewildering array of answers, many of which are based on dodgy opinions, rather than solid science. Where to look? At our list of the top ten trustworthy sites, apps and books, for a start...
Patient: The best one-stop shop for straightforward information on conditions, symptoms, and health advice, all evidence-based and written by doctors. Three GPs and a consultant I asked all put this at the top of their list, and many doctors print out its leaflets for patients during consultations. There’s also an app for Apple, Android and Windows devices.
NHS: Another excellent all-round general site is the good old NHS.There’s a health A-Z of conditions, a Live Well section and their Health News gives accessible but expert analysis of whether media stories about the latest research are balanced or bull***t. The NHS symptom checker facility is also available on NHS Direct, plus on apps for Android and iPhone mobiles.
PubMed Health: The best health information is evidence-based - drawn from sound academic studies or commercial trials and published in peer-reviewed medical journals. These ‘primary sources’ are what all health experts should base their knowledge on, but for lay readers they are often impossible to understand. To get a basic grasp of research findings, PubMed Health, part of the US National Library of Medicine, does exactly what it says on the tin: it “specializes in reviews of clinical effectiveness research, with easy-to-read summaries for consumers”. Click on the Content tab and then Consumers for an A-Z list of thousands of conditions and treatments, starting with - hurrah! - “Plain English summaries of the research findings”.
The big four: They are the biggest potential killers, and/or on the rise. Cardiovascular disease (heart and blood vessels), cancer, diabetes and dementia, are, sadly, conditions that many of us will encounter personally or through our nearest and dearest. Various charities support and inform sufferers and their families, and they spend millions on research to help find treatments and cures. Cynics say that charities have their own agendas, both financial and political, and that if they receive funding from drug companies, aren’t entirely independent. But as a source of calm, evidence-based advice and a place to meet other sufferers through forums and events, they are a very good place to start.
Embarrassing Problems: Since no one wants to be seen reading a book called “What to do if you’ve got verrucas/wind/nipple discharge”, this is the place to go if you have something you’d rather not tell your GP about. You know - smelly, leaky, noisy things. Much of its content is written by doctors, there’s a good Q&A section and some entertaining videos by broadcaster and columnist Dr Phil Hammond.
Menopause Matters: A GP recommended this no-nonsense, comprehensive site about the dreaded change. Clinician-led, it also has forums, links to interesting articles and you can even contact a gynaecologist for one-to-one consultations.
Motivation and mentoring are the buzzwords, and a host of mobile apps have popped up to help set and track weight loss and fitness goals, and use “buddies” for support by linking to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Check out free ones first like Adidas MiCoach, or one of the most popular, MyFitnessPal, which counts and tracks calories and can even scan barcodes - handy when taking part in the 5:2 diet plan, as Prue White discovered.
No body parts are left untouched by apps - Daily Butt targets just what you’d expect and Brush DJ, made by dentists, links two minutes bursts of your favourite MP3 tracks to brush to, with lots of extra tips and tricks to put the biggest smile on your face.
A Bloke's Diagnose It Yourself Guide To Health by Keith Hopcroft and Alistair Moulds (Oxford Medical Publications): Men are notoriously difficult to get through the door of a doctor’s surgery. That’s because they are perfect and infallible, obviously, so unpleasant symptoms are a sign of weakness, and admitting that you are a little bit scared. This book by two GPs understands that perfectly, and its blokey, jokey approach, combined with nerdy-looking flow charts to help diagnose symptoms, hits the spot. So if the man in your life is feeling a bit off and pleads for meals on a tray in bed, just give him this instead.
100 Ways for Every Girl to Look Good & Feel Fantastic by Alice Hart-Davis & Beth Hindhaugh (£9.99, Walker Books): Leading health and beauty writer Hart-Davis and her teenage daughter Beth teamed up to write this well-executed and designed new guide. It’s not just about clothes and make-up; there are sections on Teeth, Body, Exercise and Wellbeing, which are accessible and informative without being preachy. With a 12-year-old-girl of my own as a potential future reader, what I like best about it is that the many girls photographed all look normal and not like Cheryl Cole wannabes. A friend who teaches at a top girls’ state secondary school pronounced it “brilliant”.
59 Seconds, Think a Little, Change a Lot by Professor Richard Wiseman (£8.99, Pan Books): I’ve read a lot of psychobabble in my time as a health editor, but this book by the UK’s only Professor for the Public Understanding of Psychology is based on sound research and offers fascinating insight into how we behave. Under chapter headings like Stress, Motivation, Decision Making, it’s a must-read for anyone who wants to make behaviour changes, from losing weight to parenting style.
Latte or Cappuccino, 125 Decisions That Will Change Your Life by Hilly Janes (£9.99, Michael O’Mara Books).
OK, naked self-promotion - it’s by me. We all make hundreds of choices every day that affect our health and wellbeing, from what toothpaste to use, to handling our workload and enjoying our free time. Latte or Cappuccino takes 125 decisions, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night and suggests the right one based on medical evidence, common sense and a dash of personal experience as a full-time working mum. If you found this article useful, I hope my book will be too.