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Finding Health Information on the Internet

by Elizabeth M. LaRue, PhD, MLS, AHIP

An example of a health information portal that provides both a directory of Web site links and health information compiled from a variety of sources is Yahoo! Health (http://health.yahoo.net). Yahoo! Health provides selected news stories on health, as well as articles and videos on a variety of medical conditions and health-related topics.

An example of a health information portal with a specialized search engine that searches only a proprietary database of health Web sites is Healthline (http://healthline.com). Using a smaller, subject-specific search engine such as Healthline can dramatically reduce the amount of time necessary to scan through search results, since all the search results will be Web sites that present health information. Some specialized search engines have tools that allow you to narrow your search results even further. Healthline, for example, allows you to filter your results according to symptoms, treatments, or drugs. It is also possible to search on more than one term at once — for example, “diabetes, blindness” — to reduce the number of search results.

You can find other health information portals by typing the phrase “health information portal” into a general search engine such as Google.

The SPAT method
Looking for the HONcode on the Web sites you visit and using a health information portal can help you find quality health information. But you also need to use your own judgment to assess quality, particularly if the contents of a site aren’t reviewed by health professionals. An acronym that can help you make that assessment is SPAT, which stands for Site, Publisher, Audience, and Timeliness. It should take you less than 10 seconds to check these four items on any site. If all of them meet your criteria for acceptability, the Web site most likely presents health information you can use. However, if any one of them doesn’t, look elsewhere for the information you need.

Site. The URL (uniform resource locator) is a Web site’s “address.” In some cases, it can help you identify who or what organization is behind the site. For example, www.diabetesselfmanagement.com is the Web site hosted by Diabetes Self-Management. In other cases, the URL does not tell you who is hosting the site, and you need to look elsewhere on the site to find that information.

The part of the URL commonly called the suffix, or extension, however, does tell you what type of entity is behind the site. The most common suffixes are .com (commercial business), .org (nonprofit organization), .edu (educational institution), .net (Web hosting company or computer network group), and .gov (government agency). You may also see country codes in URLs, such as .ca (Canada), .uk (United Kingdom), and .ch (China), indicating where in the world the site originates.

It’s important to note that there are currently no rules for who can use a given suffix; anyone can have whatever suffix they want. So far, however, .coms, .orgs, .edus, .nets, and .govs are usually what they claim to be.

You may find good information on any of these types of sites. But because commercial businesses are out to make a profit, they may tailor the information they present to make their product or service look good. If you’re wondering whether the information you read on a .com site is biased toward that company’s interests, double-check the information on another type of site.

When you find a Web site that you think you may want to visit again or mention to someone else, either bookmark the site in your browser, or copy and paste the URL into a document.

Publisher. There should always be a name on the Web site claiming ownership and taking responsibility for the Web site content. The publisher is usually listed at the bottom of the home page. If there is no publisher listed, the information is suspect and you should search elsewhere.

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Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.



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