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Searching for Health Information Online (Part 1)

Unexpectedly, I was recently quoted in this year's Google Annual Report (page 3) on searching the medical literature. The quote was based on an interview I gave to the Google Scholar Blog where I mused about the ease of finding health information on the Internet using Google Scholar and other tools.

Also recently, a patient remarked that "On the Internet, you're always a few clicks away from certain death." He had searched online for his diagnosis and found a wealth of information, but he quickly realized that much of it was irrelevant, unduly alarming, or just plain wrong.

So I've been thinking a lot lately about health information on the Net. This series of posts will examine various ways that both patients and physicians can find reputable medical information online. To be clear: I'm not a medical librarian or a professional researcher, and this review will not be comprehensive, but it will touch upon some of my favorite methods of finding health information on the Internet.

Take kidney stones as an example. You're a patient, you've just spent most of the day in the emergency department in excruciating pain with your first kidney stone, and you come home and sit in front of your computer looking for more information. Where do you look?

A number of sites offer customized search engines which link to other websites carefully chosen to have reliable medical information. Healthline is one example of these specialized medical search engines and is certainly one of the best. (Full disclosure: I proudly blog here and consult for them.) Typing "kidney stones" in the search box on Healthline, our hypothetical patient receives a list of resources on kidney stones including an article on kidney stones reviewed by a physician, an entry on kidney stones in a medical encyclopedia, as well as information on kidney stones from outside sources including the Mayo Clinic.

In addition, glancing at the top of the page reveals "Search Ideas" -- these options include ways of broadening and refining the search, and also include a feature unique to Healthline called "HealthMaps."

A HealthMap, as I mentioned in a previous post on the value of mapping, is a visual representations of the epidemiology, diagnosis, and treatment of disease -- a "disease at a glance." Clicking on any of the components further refines the search to focus on that aspect of the disease. Clicking on "uric acid stones," for example, would automatically direct the patient to further information about that type of kidney stone.

More on searching for health information online in part 2.
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About the Author


Dr. Schwimmer's blog explores the intersection of medicine, new technologies, and the Internet.