Finding Medical and Health Policy Information on the Internet

By Ronald L. Scott
rscott@central.uh.edu

It was recently reported that the vast amount of on-line medical data is changing the relationship between physicians and their patients. The Internet contains an extensive array of medical information, but separating the peer-reviewed science from quackery or commercialism may challenge the average user. Although the ability to locate cutting-edge research is often touted, the Internet is even more useful to locate more established medical information. For example, a patient diagnosed with osteoporosis may want more detailed information than that available from a short consultation with a physician. The key to determining the quality of any information located via an Internet search may be as simple as looking at the ubiquitous uniform resource locator (URL), i.e., the Internet "address."

Sophisticated search engines such as Hotbot at http://www.hotbot.com allow a user to specify the "domain" where a search will be conducted. For example, a search of governmental domain (.gov) would arguably produce less biased information than a search of commercial (.com) domains. Even within commercial domains, information posted by a reputable drug manufacturer is likely more medically accurate than information posted by a web site selling "nutritional supplements" to treat medical conditions. For the skeptic, information posted by a web site directly selling anything may be suspect on the basis of caveat emptor. Further, a manufacturer using a web site as a marketing tool, even without direct selling, may present a less objective perspective than a more neutral source. A visit to Pfizer, the manufacturer of Viagra, at http://www.viagra.com will not likely reveal the level of drug interaction details that may be found at the Food and Drug Administration site at http://www.fda.gov. One commercial site (sponsored by several drug companies) that offers fairly detailed medical information on a wide variety of conditions is the Doctorís Guide to the Internet at http://www.pslgroup.com/docguide.htm.

It is sometimes useful to evaluate information by examining the perspective of the organization posting the information. For example, when visiting the American Medical Associationís web site at http://www.ama-assn.org/home.htm also visit the "Advocacy" section to better understand the organizationís goals on health policy issues. Whenever possible, try to locate organizations with differing perspectives on a given issue. It is understandable that an organization such as the Foundation for Osteoporosis Research and Education at http://www.fore.org or the National Osteoporosis Foundation at http://www.nof.org/advocacy.html would perhaps be more bullish on bone density testing than the governmental Agency for Health Care Policy and Research at http://www.ahcpr.gov.

For the technologically challenged, a hierarchical search structure such as Yahoo at http://www.yahoo.com may provide better results. Simply click "Health" or the subcategories of "Medicine, Diseases, Drugs," etc. Yahoo will then present a wide variety of well-organized and categorized links with helpful descriptions.

07/16/98