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Online National Health Survey Seeks To Sign Up Millions

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April 27, 1998

By Jeffery Kahn, [email protected]

BERKELEY -- Paul Williams of the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is attempting to transform epidemiology by wedding it to the Internet. Williams, who runs several large national health studies, has launched what he hopes will be the first epidemiological mega-survey on the Internet.

The National Health Survey can be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.healthsurvey.org. The study was initiated in order to identify foods, dietary supplements, exercises, and medical practices (traditional and alternative) that could increase life expectancy and reduce chronic diseases.

Williams, a researcher in Berkeley Lab’s Life Sciences Division, says the study is based on the premise that everyone is engaged in a personal experiment in which their choice of foods, vitamins, medical treatment, and lifestyle affects their health. The accumulation of all these individual experiments into one nationwide study could lead to improved guidelines and recommendations for diet, lifestyle, and medical treatments.

Says Williams, "The study could identify which drugs and medical treatments are most effective, as well as drugs that have heretofore unrecognized effects, both beneficial and detrimental. It will provide both a national health status report and possibly provide an early warning system for drugs or dietary supplements that have serious side effects."

Williams notes that vitamins and sundry dietary supplements are widely consumed yet there is a scarcity of scientific information about how they affect health. For instance, the benefits of aspirin in reducing heart disease have been recognized only in recent years. To gain a better understanding of the affects of supplements, the National Health Survey includes a range of questions about dietary supplements.

Williams says the Internet could prove to be a boon to epidemiological science. "Whereas these prior ‘pencil and paper’ questionnaires are expensive to produce, distribute, and analyze, the new broader National Health Study on the Internet will cost only pennies per person and will allow two-way interaction. It is a statistical fact that the larger the study, the greater the precision for identifying links between lifestyles and health. The goal of the study is to recruit 20 million Americans into the first epidemiological mega-survey."

The survey provides immediate benefits to those who sign up. Participants who enter their data through the Internet will receive an automatic on-the-spot analysis of their diet, physical activity, and weight. They will be re-contacted every three months for the opportunity to update their personal information and to report on their health status. At no charge, participants can choose to have their dietary analysis sent to their physicians, health counselors, or whomever they choose.

Williams says his goal is to give each person who enrolls in the study more information than they provide. For example, individuals will learn how much exercise they are doing relative to others of their same age and sex, and also receive an evaluation about their weight and diet. These analyses will be provided without cost or without any obligation to join the study. Data from those participants who do choose to join will be used to test how exercise, diet, and dietary supplements affect disease risk. All information provided will be strictly confidential.

Over the previous six years, Williams has conducted the National Runners' Health Study, a national prospective epidemiological study of 56,000 runners. The survey has played a prominent role in the ongoing national debate over recommendations on the desirable levels of physical activity. Williams also launched a companion study, the National Walkers' Health Study, which currently includes 5,000 walkers.

Berkeley Lab (http://www.lbl.gov) is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory located in Berkeley, Calif. It conducts unclassified research and is managed by the University of California.

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