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Published: September, 2006; Vol 3, Num 4

Online Medical Information Accessible, Useful

Craig Stoltz is the Health Editor of the Washington Post. He covers the medical beat and presumably spends a lot of time doing online research for his reporting and editorial work.

On August 1, in a story titled A 10-Year Checkup, Stotlz examined the state of online medical resources. His verdict: “The Internet has matured to a point where the millions of people seeking medical information can prepare themselves for a serious medical encounter with speed and confidence.”

Stoltz used the unfortunate diagnosis of a relative – chronic lymphocytic leukemia – as a reason to use web-based sources to learn about the medical condition. He started where most of us would probably start: Google.

Google produced more than two million web pages but, more significantly, it topped the list with some guidance on how to refine the search in a variety of useful ways. Last May, Google added this search aid to certain topics, health conditions among them. For health conditions, a click on any of these topics will instantaneously narrow the search considerably:

  • Treatment
  • Symptoms
  • Tests/diagnosis
  • Causes/risk factors
  • For patients
  • For health professionals
  • From medical authorities
  • Alternative medicines

Stoltz investigated all the Google options. Later, he went to MedlinePlus [http://www.medlineplus.gov/], the federal government’s medical information outlet. What he found was that much of the information listed “from medical authorities” in the Google refined search was already concentrated on the government’s MedlinePlus site. On the other hand, his investigation of the well-known commercial medical information portal, WebMD, returned almost as many links to medical services (including sponsors of the site) as it did sources of information about the disease.

In the end, Stotlz made three recommendations. He writes:

  1. Start a disease search by visiting MedlinePlus. The material is carefully vetted for credibility and, for the most part, written simply enough for a lay audience. Print that stuff out and read it carefully. When it all starts to sound the same, you’ve got the foundation of a decent education.
  2. Dig into Google, using its search refinements, choosing “from medical authorities” and “for medical professionals.” Ignore the ads off to the side.
  3. Use Google’s main results to look for a site run independently by patients…You’ll need to make sure such sites are not commercially entangled…and are authored by credible people with no investment in, say, upending the status quo, proving a conspiracy theory or supporting a sponsor. Many conditions have what appear to be independent patient groups that in fact are supported by drug companies and other interested parties. If you can find a unfettered electronic civic group for your targeted condition, however, it’ll be one of your most valuable resources.

Stoltz offered another bit of perspective. Acknowledging how we’ve all been often warned about how much dangerous information is available online, he said, “I came across plenty of it. But the simple truth is, it’s fairly easy to avoid.”

Ten years into the e-health era, the Internet – thanks to ever expanding efforts of health organizations to share their knowledge and to increasingly sophisticated search engines like Google – seems to be developing well as a resource for health care consumers.