Monthly Archives: February 2003

medical information online

In between phone calls on practical issues, I worked on my paper concerning

the reliability of medical information on the Web. As a little experiment,

I tried searching for "mononucleosis" on Google. (MEDLINEplus,

the ambitious federal portal, notes that "mononucleosis" is

one of the most common search terms on its site. Since the disease is

not serious but lacks a cure, some reasonable patients and parents may

want to diagnose it and treat the symptoms on their own.)

I noticed a few things:

  • First, MEDLINEplus does not appear very prominently among the search

    results. Sites with much less funding and institutional support, and

    with much less detailed information, are at least as prominent on the

    Web. Indeed, a Hungarian student who once had mononucleosis and has

    written 700 words on the subject is almost as prominent as MEDLINEplus,

    which is a major product of a federal agency with a $250 million annual


  • Second, it is difficult to make an accurate diagnosis of mononucleosis

    using the Internet, because its symptoms vary and resemble the symptoms

    of other diseases (including HIV/AIDS). There is a fairly reliable blood

    test that only a physician can conduct. Therefore, many people who suspect

    that they have mononucleosis will learn from the Web that they may be

    right, but their diagnosis must be confirmed by a physician. The value

    of using the Internet in this case is somewhat limited.

  • Third, you are more likely to find yourself using MEDLINEplus if you

    know that you are interested in "mononucleosis" (a scientific

    term), rather than if you only know that you have fever, headache, swollen

    glands, tiredness, and malaise (the main symptoms of the disease). If

    you look for symptoms, most of the sites you find with Google will be

    irrelevant or unreliable.

  • Fourth, the apparent reliability of prominent sites that describe

    mononucleosis differ widely, but the main information that they offer

    is similar (with the exception of the material on homeopathy that appears

    in some of the non-governmental sites.) Even the 700-word site constructed

    by a Hungarian student offers fundamentally the same message as MEDLINEplus—on

    this particular topic.


I had a string of meetings today, the first day back after almost a week

off for snow. Since travel was still disrupted in many parts of the city,

I agreed to meet one out-of-town colleague at her previous appointment

in Silver Spring; we then conducted most of our business on a campus shuttle

bus to College Park. Two of the meetings were with graduate students who

are just starting on major research projects. I tried to give them lots

of research ideas so that they wouldn’t be overly influenced by any particular

idea I suggested. In one case—again because of travel disruptions—we

conducted most of the meeting standing on top of a pile of plowed snow

in a median strip in a residential neighborhood near the College Park



The fifth day of deep snow. The initial festive atmosphere has turned

distinctly grouchy. I tried to get to work, but there were many hundreds

of people on the Metro platform and the trains—which passed through

about four times an hour—were so packed that no one was getting on.

I stayed for 45 minutes and then gave up. At home for the fifth straight

day, I was reduced to inventing a Napoleonic naval wargame with blocks

and tiddly-winks.

David Broder

Today, President’s Day, was supposed to be the White House Forum on American

History, Civics, and Service. We were excited, because we had just launched

our report on The Civic

Mission of Schools; John Bridgeland had formally praised it on

behalf of the administration; and it was to be distributed at the Forum.

But with Washington buried under perhaps the biggest snowfall in its recorded

history, the Forum was cancelled. I am, however, delighted to link to

a Sunday article

by David Broder that not only endorses The Civic Mission of Schools;

it also deftly and accurately summarizes it. And today’s Washington

Post has a masthead

editorial endorsing the report. (Unfortunately, the Post was

hardly delivered to anyone today, since side streets were impassable.)