Parents who have searched for health information online know it can be every bit as frustrating as it is enlightening. Many websites have an agenda that isn't obvious until you figure out who is paying to put all that information at your finger-tips.

Parents who have searched for health information online know it can be every bit as frustrating as it is enlightening. Many websites have an agenda that isn't obvious until you figure out who is paying to put all that information at your finger-tips. Even more worrisome, researchers have found that information on many health websites is outdated, incomplete, or simply inaccurate.

Even though medical information on the Internet seems like a free-for-all, a growing number of reputable sites can help you manage your family's healthcare more efficiently and effectively. Here are a few ideas about what you should-and shouldn't-do online:

Master the basics. Time with your pediatrician visit is short and precious, so don't waste it on things you could have learned online. Use a reliable, non-profit website like Kidshealth.org to get up to speed on basic childhood health issues such as cold medicines, diaper rash or chicken pox vaccine.

WebMD.com is also an established and respected health portal with a special section on children's health. Avoid using multi-purpose search engines like Google for basic health information because it will find too many commercial sites biased in favor of what they hope to sell. For a search engine that will yield only doctor-approved websites, try healthline.com.

Check out drugs. Don't buy medicine for your family online. The risk of getting counterfeit drugs is simply too great. Instead, use Drugs.com to research benefits and side effects of both prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Not only is the site easy to under-stand, it explains where the information came from and when it was updated.

If you can't afford drugs that have been recommended for a family member, go to Rxassist.org, a non-profit website that has up-to-date information about assistance programs, many run by the companies that manufacture the drugs.

Find healthcare providers. Word-of-mouth from other parents is probably still the best way to find a pediatrician, but a website like Ucompare-healthcare.com can be invaluable when you need to check out specialists, hospitals and other health facilities. This free service lets you see where physicians were educated, where they have hospital privileges and whether they have faced disciplinary action.

Comparison shop. Healthcare is the only area in which consumers don't know the price of things before they buy and where costs vary dramatically from place to place. Slowly, the Internet is making the cost of health services more transparent. If you have health insurance, your company's website may have lists of what they regard as reasonable and customary costs for everything from office visits to surgery. Even if you don't have insurance, you can check the costs of some medical services in advance.

Hospitals such as the Dartmouth Medical Center have begun putting detailed cost information on their websites. (Go to dhmc.org and search for "charges for healthcare services.") Healthgrades.com charges for its reports (click on "health manager" for a full list of topics), but they are specific to your region.

Connect with your pediatrician. A survey by InteractiveDad.com found most pediatricians don't have websites even though most parents wish they did.

Because websites make it easier to set up appointments, refill prescriptions and get basic healthcare information, some parents are choosing their healthcare providers based on whether they provide this service. Even doctors who don't have websites may be willing to do e-mail consultations on simple problems. Just be sure to find out whether they charge per e-mail.

Keep records. Every time you go to a new doctor, you have to fill out a hundred little boxes asking for everything from dates of immunizations to family health history. Keeping all this information in one master file minimizes tedium and increases accuracy. If the file is stored online you can have instant access, even if you aren't at home.

A number of websites now offer this service, though many charge a fee. IHealthRecord.com, a service designed by physicians, is free to patients and is password protected. A list of other services is available at http://www.myphr.com/resources/phr_search.asp.

Locate support. An online community with active message boards is often the best place to find encouragement when you are facing family medical problems, especially if they are low incidence. Parents of children with disabilities or chronic illnesses can benefit enormously from sharing their experiences with other parents who "get" what they are talking about.

Teenagers and even children facing health challenges, such as cancer or diabetes, may also find these communities helpful. Organizations or agencies devoted to specific illnesses often have lists of such groups, but they also can be found on social networking sites. Parents and teens should remember that any medical advice provided in online groups is simply opinion.

Any health information or services found online should be treated as a second, third or fourth opinion. The opinion that matters most will always be the one from a trusted physician. Still, most pediatricians now understand that well-chosen websites can help parents find, understand and manage healthcare information. It's worth asking if your pediatrician has websites he or she recommends. If you get good suggestions, please send them along to be posted at www.growing-up-online. Or, if you get a blank look, you may want to share this column!