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While debates on health care policy and reform continue in the White House, the issue is being revolutionized in cyber space. Time and again, we’ve heard that health care starts with the patient and his or her everyday decisions to prevent common illnesses and successfully mitigate chronic ones. Now, online applications are intervening to reign over the phenomenon of user-generated health. And it’s not just about Medicare. These web services fit the niche for us Facebook-ers, and might help us to prevent more serious health problems as we grow older.

Health technology sounds sophisticated and complicated, but you’ve probably already made use of what it has to offer without even thinking about it. Consider WebMD. Last week, my friend told me she’d had an allergic reaction to a spider bite, and mentioned she was eventually going to go to Student Health Service about it. She had searched her symptoms and diagnosed herself using WebMD, and the doctor’s office was just a bonus. But WebMD doesn’t even scratch the surface of what is out there on the web by means of health and health care.

Last week at the fall Health 2.0 Conference, speakers and demos showcasing the best in health technology took San Francisco by storm. The conference spotlighted online search, communities and tools for both doctors and patients. Present were startups like American Well and Hello Health that facilitate online communication between doctors and patients via webcam and instant messaging, respectively.

And of course Google is getting in on the fun as well. Google Health is a personal database that allows individuals to store and manage personal health information. A subscriber can import medical records from hospitals and laboratories, track medical history, refill prescriptions and receive personalized health information based on personal profile.

These innovations are, without a doubt, steps towards positive change. The services are encouraging people to take control of their health, especially when they are unable to see a doctor. Still, I have my qualms.

In those elementary school days, whenever I was ill, visits to the doctor made me feel better. It wasn’t necessarily the medication, though. My pediatrician just knew how to deal with children, not to mention her great taste in stickers and plastic toys. More recently, when I visited SHS, my actual interaction with a doctor lasted just a couple minutes.

As I was walking home, though, I received an online message from the doctor with a link to an online community discussing all aspects of the ailment: symptoms, preventions and cures. As I spiraled into a never-ending cycle of hyperlinks, I, for lack of a better phrase, did nothing but freak myself out. I’m not the only one — with so much information out there, the WebMD phenomenon of self-diagnosing can overwhelm and misguide just as frequently as it informs and directs. And at that moment, real-life interaction, a smiling face or a comforting pat on the back, would have gone a long way.

Health technology is not replacing human doctors and nurses altogether. A computer cannot give you a shot or perform surgery. But it’s impossible for each of us to have a real, live doctor permanently at our disposal. We can, however, use technology to help maintain a healthy lifestyle — and that’s something we should do more of.

There are smartphone applications for everything from prevention to consultation. From tracking the number of calories you consume to the paces you walk, from diagnosing your symptoms to treating your sleep deprivation, the possibilities are endless, and these technologies can help us to prevent certain illnesses and diseases in the long run. One called EPocrates is available on multiple mobile platforms and is downloaded by patients and health care professionals alike.

Health technology is no human doctor, but it can provide around-the-clock monitoring and consultation when necessary. A sticker or plastic toy is kind of nice once in a while, but if prevention is as easy as playing with an iPhone app, why not?

Rohini Venkatraman is a College senior from San Jose, Calif. Her e-mail address is

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