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When a member of Tom Ferguson's family faced the prospect of back surgery recently, Ferguson, of Austin, Texas, knew exactly where to go for advice: his computer.

Online, he found literature on the type of procedure proposed, discussions of its effectiveness and the names of experts who could provide a second opinion. Ferguson passed on the information to his relative, who for now has decided to try a less-invasive, less-expensive alternative.Ferguson knows better than most how to find health information online. A physician specializing in self-help, he's the author of "Health Online" (Addison-Wesley, $17), a guide to destinations on the information superhighway.

But anyone strolling through cyberspace will find multiple ways to manage health and its costs. Each of the major online services - America Online (800-827-6364), CompuServe (800-848-8199) and Prodigy (800-776-3449) - offers medical references, support groups and access to the Internet with its links to health information worldwide.

Online resources can help you make the most of your health dollar. But don't trade savings in one area for megabills in another: Although commercial services charge only about $10 a month for the first five hours, charges rack up at $3 per hour beyond that. And for some features you pay additional downloading costs - say, $1.50 for each article.

CompuServe is "the king of the health and medical data bases," Ferguson says. Offerings include Health Database Plus, with more than 200,000 articles from consumer and health magazines; Paper Chase, with access to medical data bases, including the National Library of Medicine's Medline database; and the Handicapped User's Database, which lists resources for disabled people. (To find them, use the command "go: health," and choose from the menu.)

On America Online, you can find user-friendly but less-extensive research listings by clicking on "Search Health Forum" in the Better Health & Medical Forum (keyword: better health) and by downloading news articles in the Health Channel (keyword: health).

Prodigy, with the smallest selection, offers articles and news releases (jump to: health news).

If you don't subscribe to an on-line service and don't have Internet access, you can hitch a ride on-line by dialing up a health bulletin board. The Black Bag bulletin board (modem: 610-454-7396) lists more than 300 health-related bulletin boards.