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Medline Plus: Online medical info for ordinary people

January 18, 1999
Web posted at: 11:11 a.m. EST (1611 GMT)

by Elana Varon

Federal Computer Week

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(IDG) -- Although the National Library of Medicine has always provided information to the public, its resources, including online databases, were designed for medical professionals. Now the agency has developed a World Wide Web site, Medline Plus, that aims to deliver the latest medical research and health information to lay people.

The Medline Plus site collects information on common diseases and conditions and offers dozens of reference tools used by medical librarians. It is a work in progress, NLM director Dr. Donald Lindberg said. "We have known for many years that it's very, very desirable to provide biomedical information to the public, but we've not done it directly," he said.

Among the reasons the agency is trying to provide such information now are that it is easier to disseminate information through the Internet, and there is growing public demand for health information.

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The challenge, Lindberg said, is to package this information in a way that is useful to someone without a medical degree. One way NLM tries to accomplish this is by organizing information according to specific conditions.

Clicking on Health Topics provides a link to a list of 44 (as of Jan. 4) common diseases and health problems, including AIDS, cancer, Lyme disease and tuberculosis. Click on High Blood Pressure, and you'll get a list of more than 50 links to recent journal citations, articles, fact sheets, statistics, treatment options, clinical trial information and other references.

The journal citations come from pre-set queries to NLM's flagship Medline database, a bibliography of research published in 3,900 biomedical journals. The rest of the information comes from NLM's sister agencies within the National Institutes of Health, other federal and state health agencies, private medical associations and hospitals.

If there is a medical term you do not understand, you can look it up in one of six online dictionaries. For research data, the Search Databases button provides links to 15 NIH databases, plus a dozen from other agencies and organizations. The Organizations and Clearinghouses buttons provide additional links to more than four dozen groups that offer literature and other health-related services.

But unless what you are looking for is already sorted under Health Topics, or you know exactly which other links you need to pursue, the site can be hard to navigate. For example, if the recent news about the octuplets born in Texas piqued your interest in infertility, you will not find any links by entering "infertility" into the home page's search feature.

The site will suggest searching the Medline database, which turns up 15 journal citations, but none of these offers general information about the topic.

Lindberg said the vision for Medline Plus calls for some 400 topic-based pages altogether, but he thinks NLM needs to refine how it presents the existing pages first. "In some of these cases, [we've] been very systematic in giving all sources of information," he said. "Sometimes the most important stuff gets buried."

NLM has enlisted 207 public libraries across the country to help make Medline Plus more user-friendly. Librarians at those libraries have agreed to tell the agency what types of health information their patrons want and whether they are able to find it using Medline Plus.

Elana Varon is a senior reporter for FCW.

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