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June 3, 2004

Librarians' pointers to find quality health information online

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—For some patients, talking to the doctor and reading pamphlets on medical issues is sufficient to learn about their health.

Others aggressively search for third-party health information, sometimes to better understand or ask more informed questions of their health care providers, other times to prove their doctor right or wrong. For this group of informed health care consumers, searching the Internet is empowering.

Patricia Anderson teaches courses on using the Internet to find health-related information, and has spent the last three years researching the best consumer search techniques for the new three-volume "The Medical Library Association Encyclopedic Guide to Searching and Finding Health Information on the Web."

Anderson, head librarian at the University of Michigan Dentistry Library, collaborated on the book with Nancy Allee, director of the U-M Public Health Library and Informatics. The two met as part of their work on HealthWeb, a project of the health sciences libraries of the Greater Midwest Region of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine.

Librarians study how information is organized, where to find it and how to sift through it once you've found it. Because Anderson and Allee specialize in health libraries, they understand the topics well and also empathize with patients who don't have medical degrees.

Anderson said doctors and patients approach health topics differently—while the doctor might be concerned about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, patients often want to know if they have the very best doctor for their ailment and why they got sick.

The pair studied how consumers look for information, as well as best strategies to get what they wanted, by examining questions posed on the Google Answers Web site, talking to individuals and drawing on their extensive information-search-and-retrieval experience.

Some pointers Anderson and Allee gleaned, in collaboration with a wide variety of authors including librarians, information professionals, health professionals and patient advocates:

• Use quotation marks to group words as phrases in a search, try different words to describe the same idea, and use an advanced search option like the one on Google, to more carefully define what you want.

• Try different strategies. A patient who wants information about cancer could be overwhelmed with millions of results. Instead, search for "breast cancer treatment" or any other specific type. A patient with a rare condition might instead need to search on a broader term for the group of ailments most like their own.

• Add and subtract words from the search box. More words typically yield fewer results.

• When a search produces some good results, but also a bunch of oddballs, pick a word from the oddball results, add it to your search terms with a minus sign in front of it and your next search will exclude that idea.

• Search different sources. For example, try finding information about a common concern like influenza on a trusted health-focused Web site or search engine. Rare or technical issues might get more results from a general search engine, which might either turn up the information you're after or locate a specialized source. Patient-driven sites, where individuals post messages about their experiences with a health issue, can offer suggestions and moral support, as well.

• Once you have turned up mountains of information, formulate a strategy about what to do with it. Anderson suggests picking three articles to take to each medical visit and having one specific question about each: Is this treatment appropriate for me, should I be concerned about the issues raised here, what do you know about this idea?

Anderson doesn't just preach this information. She lives it.

Her 10-year-old son is having surgery on his arm this summer, and in preparation, she searched the Internet to find out more about his diagnosis. She also found a patient online who had the same sort of surgery and got first-hand insights about recovery. She checked out her son's doctor before their first visit and could ask informed questions about the doctor's background.

For patients just getting started, Anderson suggests checking out the companion Web site to the searching encyclopedia. It has some pointers for getting started, as well as the first two chapters available for free download. MLA Encyclopedic Guide to Searching and Finding Health Information on the Web: http://www.umich.edu/~pfa/mlaguide/

"The MLA Encyclopedic Guide is about personal empowerment in one of the most intimate aspects of our personal lives. It is also about a belief that both access to quality information and share health decision making nurture the trust that comes from a sense of how much personal control and power is possible in a situation that is, by definition, unpredictable and filled with personal risk," the site says.

For more about Anderson, visit: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~pfa/

Public Health Library & Informatics Division, where Allee is director: http://www.sph.umich.edu/phisa/home.html

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Contact: Colleen Newvine
Phone: (734) 647-4411
E-mail: cnewvine@umich.edu