Medical Search Engines: Myth or Marvel? Search Results and Quality of Information Vary Greatly among Resources

Article excerpt

The search for reliable medical information on the Internet can feel similar to standing in a supermarket checkout line and glancing at health and medicine headlines that abound on the covers of the magazines displayed there. For the analogy to work though, you need to make the checkout line 100 yards long and toss together lay press magazines and tabloids, esteemed medical journals, new journals you haven't yet heard of, government brochures, university education pieces, and brochures and flyers for medical products and services -- including hospitals and physicians describing their expertise and services. And you have to do your looking through a cardboard paper-towel tube.

Finding what you want is no mean feat. How do you make head or tails of it? How do you find reliable information on a subject in this morass of unqualified, unorganized content?

Medical content on the Internet has grown to such proportions that the "gold standard" medical hotlists have become impossible to keep up to date and accurately organized. As a result, a new breed of services -- the "medical search engines" -- has sprung up.

This review of these services unveils, well, lots of contenders, several pretenders, and at least a couple of jewels.

Integrated Search Form Pages -- Pick a Flavor

The MED Engine and MedBot both do similar tasks. With a good deal of hype at The MED Engine and with very little at MedBot, users are provided a single entry form for search-term input. Then you select which sites(s) you want to run the search on.

The MED Engine (http://www.fast search.com/med/index.html) lists 10 medical hotlists and medical sites for you to run your search on (you can choose to search only six at time). In the list are ACHOO (reviewed below); Atlanta Reproductive Health Center; Biological, Agricultural, and Medical Resources; HealthWatch; HealthAtoZ (reviewed next column); Healthy Choice; Reuters Health; RxList; The Virtual Hospital; Yahoo!; and Your Health Daily. This list is very restrictive and heavily focused on consumer health-care information.

I ran searches on balloon angioplasty and prostatitis. I retrieved a bunch of listings from Reuters Health, but otherwise the searches were pretty much strikeouts. If you try this site yourself, don't include HealthWatch in your list of sites to search. You'll get HealthWatch's two-page-long search form embedded in your results, with no actual search results from the site.

MedBot (http://medworld.stanford. edu/medworld/medbot) has a much broader selection of sites to search, and the means of selecting them is easier (checkboxes rather than a small scrolling list). They segregate their sites for searching under the following:

* General Indices: Includes five standard hotlists with health-care indexes * Search Engines: Select from eight of the top engines * Medical Indices & References: ACHOO, Medical Matrix, MedWeb, and MedGuide. * Medical Education & Learning: Virtual Hospital, Doctor's Guide, ParentsPlace, WebDoctor, and IAPAC AIDS * Medical News & Information: Reuters Health, New York Times, and Mental Health News * Medical Images & Multimedia: WebPath, PathAtlas

While the selection is broader and better organized than The MED Engine, it still has some pretty large holes. Notoriously absent are sites with collections of clinical content for the physician. I assume MedBot leaves that to the search engines, which pretty much sidesteps the issue of what I think a medical search engine should do. Again, this one would be a good starting point for consumers, but not for physicians.

NASB provides a variation on the above approach. At http://phaxp1.gsph. pitt.edu/Med_Search_Engines.html you will find a page presenting separate search blanks for querying 29 medical sites, including a sprinkling of online journals such as several AMA titles, Annals of Internal Medicine, and the Lancet; and online resources like medical newsgroups, government sites, and some organizations and commercial medical sites. …