This chapter provides a guide to the many health information clearinghouses, toll-free hotlines, information centers, and resource organizations that provide health information services to the gerneral public. Typical services provided include making referrals to relevant organizations and specialists; publishing and distributing pamphlets, fact sheets, brochures, booklets, leaflets, posters, audiovisual materials, and information packets; responding to inquiries made by phone, by fax, or in writing; maintaining a Web site and posting current information on it; answering specific questions; providing bibliographies and lists of suggested readings; and conducting literature searches of in-house and other databases. In recent years, major emphasis has been placed on making information available on the Internet and by fax dial-up services, which provide 24/7 service.
The conditions or restrictions placed on access vary. For those information services that have a Web site, it is quite simple to download or order publications through the site, or to initiate inquiries by means of e-mail. It is advisable in the case of private (nonfederal) organizations to determine in advance the services provided, limitations in access, whether charges are involved, hours of service, choices in document delivery, and a catalog of current publications. Since most national associations in the private sector routinely refer requests to their lo cal or regional affiliates, it is more efficient to first contact the local affiliate of a voluntary health asso ciation in order to avoid delay.
Many of the health information clearinghouses are funded by the federal government for the purpose of improving the communication of information generated by governmental departments, institutes, and agencies. Often, the clearinghouses serve both pro fessional and lay audiences, with publications classified as either Public/Patients or Professional Materials. Heavy emphasis is placed by the clearinghouses on providing a gateway to the total array of information resources available in both the public and private sectors—relevant organizations, research programs, technical specialists, researchers, publications, toll-free hotlines, reports, audiovisual materials, databases, and Web sites—that are related to the clearinghouse mission.
Other information services are sponsored by the private sector. Sponsoring organizations include voluntary health associations, professional societies, trade groups, manufacturers' associations, pharmaceutical companies, educational institutions, hospitals, insurance companies, and consumer groups. The dissemination of information is viewed as an integral part of the educational, advocacy, and marketing activities of such organizations. In the case of the voluntary health associations, the information service provided is often accompanied by promotional materials and a solicitation for financial support. Many clearinghouses and information centers actively cre-