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

    budget.

  • 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.

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