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Searching for Health Information Online (Part 3)

In part 1, I introduced ways of searching for health information online and discussed Healthline's approach and the use of HealthMaps. In part 2, I discussed MedlinePlus and the individual web pages of physicians. In this part, I'll compare three other methods of searching for health information: UpToDate (a "top-down" approach), Google Search (a "bottom-up" approach), and Google Co-op (a "hybrid" approach).

UpToDate is a popular, frequently updated, online textbook of medicine for health care providers. It's unparalleled at giving a quick, high-level overview of many frequently encountered clinical situations and is widely used by physicians. UpToDate also offers a section of information designed for patients (which is less well-known). This information for patients on UpToDate is typically written by the same experts that write the reviews on the main site for health care providers. You might consider this a "top-down" approach to providing health information -- the site itself provides reviews of topics written by respected experts.

For example, our patient in part 1 with a kidney stone might navigate to UpToDate's "Table of contents for patient-level information," choose "kidney disease," then choose the section on "kidney stones." The reviews for patients on UpToDate are detailed and written at a high-level (which some people might find appealing and others might dislike), which reflects the main focus of UpToDate as a source of information for health care providers.

In contrast to the "top-down" approach of UpToDate, the search engine Google provides a "bottom-up" approach. Rather than producing it's own content, Google provides a list of links chosen based upon an automated method which provides a ranking of quality. If the patient with a kidney stone in part 1 searches for "kidney stones" in Google, the first link provided is a review from the National Institutes of Health. The second is the review from Wikipedia (a public encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute).
While Google typically provides relevant, high-quality results, the links provided are not necessarily the most authoritative (take Wikipedia, for example) or safe (see McAfee Siteadvisor's analysis of the Safety of Internet Search Engines).

Google Co-op, a "hybrid" approach, is an attempt to address these concerns. Google Co-op combines the "bottom-up" search results from Google with the "top-down" expertise of various organizations and individuals. For example, the Google Co-op Health Section lists contributors such as the Centers for Disease Control, the National Library of Medicine, and the Cleveland Clinic. When searching for various health topics, the "labels" from these contributors are included as part of the search under the "Refine results" section. Searching for "kidney stones" on Google, for example, displays the following additional links:

Clicking "From medical authorities" provides only links that have been labeled by the contributors as being from reputable medical authorities. This is one way of combining the expertise of health care organizations with the results from Google's search engine.

In part 4, I'll conclude with a look at searching for more detailed health information using Google Scholar and PubMed.
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About the Author


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