MEDLINEplus: MEDLINE for the Masses

By O'Leary, Mick | Information Today, July 2000 | Go to article overview
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MEDLINEplus: MEDLINE for the Masses


O'Leary, Mick, Information Today


This site offers comprehensive, consumer-oriented health information

It seems that every month some new medical/health Web site appears--Dr.com this, Medical.com that, or something of the sort. It's nice to have all of this medical/health information--it's one of the principal research uses of the Web--but the dot-com part of it should make us all just a little bit wary. Dot-com means commercial site, which means that they're trying to sell you something, which means you have to be just a little bit skeptical about why and how the information gets there.

I'm not impugning the entire class of dot-com health-information sites. Many are highly reputable and valuable information resources. But we have our doubts about the privatization of healthcare--maybe we should think twice about the privatization of health information.

Fortunately we have strong health-information counterweights from the public sector. One of the most notable is MEDLINEplus (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus), the consumer health-information service from the National Library of Medicine. The MEDLINE "brand" (to borrow a bit of dot-com terminology) imparts immediate and deserved authority to MEDLINEplus. Like MEDLINE, its counterpart for medical professionals, MEDLINEplus is comprehensive, thorough, thoughtfully designed, and conscientiously crafted, but it has many differences from its highly technical sibling.

First and most notably, MEDLINEplus is for consumers. Its topics, organization, and reading level are intended for the average person who needs reliable, thorough medical and health information. There are other important differences that further distinguish MEDLINEplus from MEDLINE, and define it as an all-around medical/health-information resource:

* It's a full-text database, rather than a bibliographic one.

* It covers the effects of medical conditions on family and society.

* It's designed for easy browsing and searching, unlike the search-only MEDLINE.

* It's also a medical directory, or rather several directories to organizations and other medically related resources.

The principal section of MEDLINEplus is Health Topics, which is a collection of thousands of publications from the leading federal government medical agencies, including the National Institutes (Aging, Cancer, Mental Health, etc.), the Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Disease Control, and others. It includes pamphlets, articles, research summaries, and news releases, all written especially for a consumer audience. A small number of publications are obtained from worthy nongovernmental organizations, especially the leading medical and public-health professional associations.

The database covers the following medical, health, and wellness topics in the broadest sense:

* Diseases, including all but the most uncommon

* Injuries, from bug bites to the severest traumas

* Mental illness and health

* Nutrition, wellness, fitness, and alternative medicine

* Medically related social issues, including divorce, abuse, addiction, and even social and policy aspects

For each topic there are usually one or more overview articles that summarize the principal facts about the disease, condition, or injury. Other articles deal with causes, symptoms, prognosis, treatments, and medications. Still others discuss the implications for individual demographic groups, including children, women, teens, the elderly, African-Americans, Native-Americans, etc. There is a set of Spanish-language articles for most topics. When relevant, there may be articles on basic science and research, statistics, and legal or political aspects. It's like having a complete, all-around home medical-reference book, except that it's about 10 or 20 volumes long.

More Good Medical Data

MEDLINEplus has two other large reference databases: a drug manual and a medical encyclopedia.

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