Rx for Searching for Sound Health Information

Net Log John Makulowich

Rx for Searching for Sound Health Information

Anyone plying the Net for even the briefest time quickly learns hunting for information is akin to searching for the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. A large part of the problem is not knowing when you have made a true sighting.

Depending on your background, experience, level of education and innate intelligence, information you unearth on the Internet can, at the extremes, either stop you dead in your tracks or enlighten you. In between, it can befuddle or lead to missteps.

A case in point is health information. For example, a search in the popular engine Alta Vista on the term Creatine, a nutritional supplement popular among body builders, yields 46,740 hits. On HotBot, which advertises itself as "the No. 1 rated search engine," the same term shows 12,151 hits.

Another example is the asthma medication Singulair. A search in HotBot uncovers 254 hits, among them a column named, "Ask Asthma Doc," presented in a question and answer format. The site notes you can retrieve biographical information about the person answering the questions.

However, clicking on the hyperlink returns an error message. Further, the column lacks relevant details. Answering a reader's question about the medication, the "doc" says it is a "newly approved, important and safe asthma medication." However, there is no date when the question was asked or on the column and no indication when the drug was approved.

Mitretek Systems, part of the Health Information Technology Institute, is putting together a set of criteria "that can be used accurately and reliably by the general public (consumer) to assess the quality of health information on the Internet."

In its working-draft white paper, "Criteria for Assessing the Quality of Health Information on the Internet"(www.mitretek.org/hiti/showcase/documents/criteria.html), the organization, with funding from the federal unit, Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, is trying to solve the conundrum of the Internet's easy access to information and its relative absence of quality control, assurance or requirement for professionalism or credentials.

The problem takes on an added dimension when you realize that, according to a Mitretek citation, about 37 percent of consumers are now searching the Internet for health and medical information. The issue could become more volatile as the number of Internet users grows.

If you have a chance, visit the Health On the Net Foundation Web site, which lists a code of honor for health professionals that applies to postings on the Internet, at www.hon.ch/HONcode/Conduct.
html. Type the URL as shown here, or you will get an error message.

You can send John e-mail at john@journalist.com; his Web address is www.cais.com/makulow/.

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