2 Searching the Web for Reliable Health Information

Using "search engines" and "subject directories"

The previous section, "Where to find health information," provides a brief overview of the main sources of online health information. As noted, a good place to start your search for health information on the Internet is the National Library of Medicine site MedLine Plus.

You may want to explore the Internet more widely for information on specific health topics. To get started you can try using a search engineClick here for a definition of this term or a subject directoryClick here for a definition of this term.

How does a search engine work?

One way to get going is to use a search engine, such as Google (http://www.google.com/). You enter a "search term," which is a key word or phrase. The search engine scans the Internet for information related to that term and gives you a list of related Web pages. Search engines present a relatively "unfiltered," list, often with a huge number of possibilities. For example, typing in "cancer" as your search term can result in hundreds of thousands, even millions, of related Web pages. In this case, it would be wise to narrow your search by using a more specific search term, such as "prostate cancer." The search engine lists the Web pages in order of how relevant they are to your key word or phrase, so scanning the first few pages of the listing can often point you toward the information you want.

Depending on the search engine, there may be different types of search results. Sponsor matches or links are search results paid for by businesses or organizations. This means that whatever listings you find in this section are listed first because the businesses or organizations they represent have paid for this placement.

Health Compass Tip:

You should be aware that different search engines may display their results based on different criteria. In some cases, inclusion in the list of results and the order in which the results appear may be influenced by paid sponsorship. Many search engines clearly display that certain links are sponsored, eg, by listing sponsored links in a separate column. However, some search engines do not make this distinction, so watch for possible sponsorship on any sites you visit.

How does a subject directory work?

Subject directoriesClick here for a definition of this term are another option to conduct a search. Subject directories have people on staff who categorize various Web sites, including those for health information (eg, arthritis or osteoporosis). These staff members also spend time choosing what they judge to be the best and most useful sites.

In a subject directory, you type in a key word, the same as you would in a search engine. The directory then displays a list of relevant pages. Again, depending on the site and its standards, the results, while more limited, may be more credible and on target than those you may get from using a search engine.

You can also search the directory by category, working your way from a general topic, such as Alzheimer's disease, to a more specific topic, such as treatments or even one specific drug.

Good directories on health and medical subjects are less well known than search engines, so the following list is provided to help you get started.

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Some health and medical directories on the Internet

MedLine Plus (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus)
MedLine Plus was created and is maintained by the National Library of Medicine (NLM). It is a comprehensive gateway to health information, and you can access almost any health topic, search a medical dictionary or a prescription drug index, and link to other organizations.

Growth House Guide to Health on the Net (http://www.growthhouse.org/)
This site offers a guide to "Best of the Net" medical and mental health Web sites, covering thousands of topics in medicine, health care, and emotional health (from the Home Page go to "Health Directories" and then to "Health Links").

Healthfinder (http://www.healthfinder.gov/)
Healthfinder is sponsored by the US Department of Health and Human Services. It offers links to government health sites, consumer sites, and government publications in both English and Spanish.

Health On the Net Foundation (http://www.hon.ch/)
This site links to several search engines, including MedHunt and HONselect, to direct users to reliable online medical and health information.

HealthWeb (http://www.healthweb.org/) is a collaborative project of over twenty actively participating sciences libraries and the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM). The HealthWeb project was conceived in 1994 to provide organized access to evaluated non-commercial, health-related, Internet-accessible resources.

MedWeb (http://www.medweb.emory.edu/medweb) is a catalog of biomedical and health-related web sites maintained by the staff of the Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center Library at Emory University. MedWeb emphasizes Emory's biomedical educational and research programs as well as a carefully selected collection of sites of interest to the general public.

New York Online Access to Health (NOAH) (http://www.noah-health.org/)
NOAH was created through a collaboration of The City University of New York, The Metropolitan New York Library Council, The New York Academy of Medicine, and The New York Public Library. It provides online access to health information for consumers.

Health Compass Tip:

The longest running comprehensive directory of health information is the Hardin MetaDirectory of Health (http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/hardin/md), created and maintained by the University of Iowa. For each of the subjects it maintains, it offers links to some 10 to 20 directories. These directories, in turn, offer hundreds of links to related Web sites.

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Additional tips on searching the Internet

Keeping these suggestions in mind can help you get the results you are looking for when searching on key words in a search engineClick here for a definition of this term or subject directoryClick here for a definition of this term.

  1. Find the "right" key word or phrase. For example, if you are looking for information on diseases of the digestive tract, you might want to look for "gastrointestinal diseases" or "GI diseases." Even the smallest change, like capitalizing the first letter of the search word, can affect your search results. You might have to search on a few different key words or phrases to find the right one.
  2. Use lowercase letters. Use capital letters only if the word is usually capitalized, such as Alzheimer's disease.
  3. Check your spelling. Even one wrong letter will change the search and thus the results. A free online service called "Spellex" (http://www.spellex.com/speller.htm) can help you spell medical terms correctly. If you misspell or mistype a word, some search engines will offer the correct spelling and ask if this is the word or topic you are searching for. For example, it will ask you if you meant "ophthalmologists," if you type, by mistake, "opthalmologists."
  4. If necessary, narrow your search. Many search engines offer the option "search within results." If you click on this phrase, the search engine will let you type in additional words to make your search more specific. For example, searching on the word "cholesterol" results in nearly 2 million results. If you click on "search within results," and then type in two different types of cholesterol: "LDL" or "HDL," the search engine will look through those initial search results and then list only those that mention either LDL or HDL.
  5. What do all those .com and .org endings mean?
    Endings of Internet addresses (called URLs) help you recognize, at a glance, the source of the information.

    Major sites, eg, of the government, major hospitals and medical centers, national health organizations, and medical journals, usually have one of the following endings:

    .gov is short for "government" and used by sites sponsored by the Federal government

    .org is short for "organization" and usually used by those that are non-profit

    .edu is short for "education," used by university-based and academic sites

    Commercial sites are usually designated as follows:

    .com is short for "commercial"

    .net is another designation for commercial sites

Health Compass Tip: Try a Sample Search

Many tips and tutorials for effective use of search engines are posted on the Web. Two examples are Danny Sullivan's Search Engine Watch (http://www.searchenginewatch.com/) and The Pandia Goalgetter. (http://www.pandia.com/goalgetter/index.html)

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Some useful non-profit and government Web sites on health and aging

By now, you've probably realized that a large amount of information on health and aging research is available on the Internet. The brief list below can help you get started. In addition, most Web sites provide links to other sites that include related, useful information.

Some additional useful Web sites are listed in the Health Compass "Resources" section.

The Alliance for Aging Research is a private, non-profit citizen advocacy organization for improving the health and independence of Americans as they age. The Alliance was founded in 1986 to promote medical and behavioral research into the aging process. This site contains information on aging research activities and consumer health information.

This site is a portal, or entry point, to Web sites for the Department of Health and Human Services and other Federal departments. Coordinated by the Office of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, this site contains links to government publications and national health organizations, including those that focus on aging.

healthfinder® is a federal Web site, developed by the US Department of Health and Human Services together with other federal agencies. healthfinder includes links to selected information and Web sites from over 1,800 health-related organizations. This site has a special section on health in older adults.

The American Geriatrics Society (AGS) Foundation for Health in Aging (FHA) is a national non-profit organization established in 1999 to build a bridge between the research and practice of geriatricsClick here for a definition of this term and the public, and to advocate on behalf of older adults and their special health care needs. This site contains health care information for the public.

Infoaging.org is a site of The American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR), one of the two non-profit organizations sponsoring Health Compass. This site is dedicated to providing health information to help people live longer, healthier lives. It offers the latest information about new research on aging and on a wide range of age-related diseases, conditions, issues, features, and news.

Informed Health Online is produced by the Health Research and Education Foundation, an international non-profit organization based in Melbourne, Australia. The Foundation is based on the principles that good health care information should be available free, in major community languages, and that research evidence on the effects of health care is essential for well-informed self-care. The site contains a range of health care information and information to help people understand health care research.

This Web site of the National Institute on Aging (NIA), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, provides reports and papers from workshops and conferences convened by the NIA. A section of this site provides a listing of NIA publications and "Age Pages" containing information on various health topics for consumers.

Health Compass Tip: Selecting Key Words

What key words would you use to conduct an Internet search for other Web sites on health and aging, similar to the ones listed above?

Suggestions: try "senior health," "aging health," or "healthy aging," on various search engines and see what you find. And remember - not all health information sites contain current or credible information. See EVALUATE for more information on assessing the reliability of health information Web sites.

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