Looking for Health Information Online? Don’t start with Google.

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

This is the first of an occasional series of blogs featuring research tips from NYAM librarians.

We’ve all done it: You leave the doctor’s office and want to know more information about a new diagnosis or other health concern. So you go to your high-tech device of choice and search the Internet.

A NYAM Librarian conducts a PubMed search.

A NYAM librarian conducts a search in PubMed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to the latest Pew Internet research on the topic, 72% of Internet users went online to find health information in the past year. Of these people, 77% started by using a search engine.¹

But a general Internet search may not be the best way to find high quality health information online.

As we all know, anyone can put information online. Just because something is on a web page does not make it reliable. Fortunately, there are excellent sites that present a wide range of trustworthy health information.

When I look for health information online, I usually start with one of the following sites. If they link to other sources, I know the pages have been vetted:

MedlinePlus
This National Library of Medicine site provides authoritative information from government agencies and nonprofit organizations. It includes a very helpful drug and supplements guide.

HealthFinder
Health information from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The CDC is especially helpful when looking for trends and statistics.

National Institutes of Health
Each NIH Institute offers a wealth of consumer health information related to its area of interest.

There are other excellent options listed on our recommended resources page under the tab “Public and Consumer Health.”

Sometimes you do need to use a search engine. As I teach my Junior Fellows students, there are questions you need to ask to assess information found online:

1. WHO wrote it? Is it an organization or an individual? What is the person or organization’s bias?

2. WHAT makes them “an expert”? What kind of organization is it? Is it written by a patient? A healthcare professional working in the field? Is there a scientific or medical advisory board assessing the information?

3. WHERE is the author located? Is the website .org, .edu, .com, .gov? Each type of site has its own reasons for sharing information.

4. WHEN was the page last updated or reviewed? Health information can change quickly. The more current, the better.

5. WHY is the information on the Internet? Is the author trying to sell a product or service or raise money? Is it there to help patients and caregivers?

6. HOW does it look? Is it easy to read? Are there lots of advertisements? Are things spelled correctly? Does it make you uncomfortable in some way?

Want to know more about evaluating online health information? MedlinePlus has you covered.

1. Pew Internet: Health (23 April 2013) Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://www.pewinternet.org/Commentary/2011/November/Pew-Internet-Health.aspx

Why Grey Literature?

By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian

The Academy started producing the Grey Literature Report in 1999 to fill the gaps in peer-reviewed journal articles and published books in the public health research literature. In general, grey literature publications are non-conventional, fugitive, and sometimes ephemeral publications. They may include, but are not limited to the following types of materials: fact sheets, technical reports, white papers, statistical reports, market research, workshop summaries, and dissertations. Most grey literature is freely accessible through the World Wide Web. Produced by foundations, think-tanks, advocacy groups, government agencies, and academic institutions, it often offers timely, statistical analysis for state-of-the-art research.

In May 2012, NYAM launched the new Grey Literature database in order to make it easier for researchers and policymakers to find the information they need. It was no longer enough to index the most current grey literature, but also important to be able to find past reports related to a specific topic. In this way, users are able to see policies that were in place in 1999 and how they have changed over time.

Grey literature offers a unique perspective to the research community because government agencies and think tanks produce these reports on topics that effect policy and the people who implement that policy. Grey literature is also timely because it is not subject to a long or peer-reviewed publishing process. For instance, the morning the U.S. Supreme Court made the deciding vote on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) their report was available online at 10:15 am. This report lays out the reasons for the decision as well as the options states have for implementing the changes.

Reactions, commentaries, and reports about how the recent ACA decision affect their constituents can come from a variety of perspectives. These commentaries are not easily findable using traditional search methods. Searching Google can be daunting and cumbersome. A simple search for “Affordable Care Act Supreme Court” results in over 7 million hits most of which are news sources. The same search in the Grey Literature Database yields 12 results that have to do with the potential outcome of the ruling for states, people, and the country, mainly written by prominent think tank organizations.

Screenshot of search for "affordable care act supreme court" in the Grey Literature database

Search results from the Grey Literature Report include materials that are not available through normal, commercial distribution channels.

A time-saving feature of the database is the ability to bookmark a search or subscribe to it as an RSS feed. The results will dynamically update every time new items are added, which is every 2 months. You can bookmark the Grey Literature search above and re-execute it in September to see the most current results added automatically. An RSS feed will alert you as new items are added.

The new database allows users to comment on a specific item, like the Supreme Court report on the ACA decision, as well as share it through Facebook or Twitter. It is now easier than ever to spread the word about the latest grey literature.

Some search features include sorting options, publisher and subject limits, and date limits.

We hope you will take the opportunity to explore the database, use the new features, and share with your friends. You may also contact us at greylithelp@nyam.org to learn more, send comments, or make recommendations. We would be happy to answer your questions.