Health Literacy

Finding What You Want with a Point and a Click: Using the Internet to Get the Medical Information You Need

Article from the Boston Globe’s On Call Magazine, June 2000

By Helen Osborne, M.Ed., OTR/L
President of Health Literacy Consulting

It truly is amazing how much medical information you can get off the Internet with just a point and a click. Everything from journal abstracts to complete books can be yours in a matter of seconds. The problem is knowing how to sort through all the information that’s available to get at that one or two pieces of information you or your patient needs.

Medical information abounds, especially on Web sites available on the Internet. The volume that’s there and the ease with which it can be found pose a challenge, though. Sifting through all this information to find just what you’re looking for and being sure it is accurate and up-to-date can seem daunting, even if you are an experienced researcher.

Suzy Conway and Anna Getselman are reference librarians at the Countway Library at Harvard Medical School. They are experts at using the Internet to find medical information that health professionals want and need. Recently, a researcher came to Conway needing a list of the top ten fatal illnesses in the United States. A good medical librarian knows you need information yesterday,” Conway says, adding that the person who made the request was noticeably rushed, and seemed to hardly have time or patience for her to help him. But Conway went to the Internet search engine called MetaCrawler, and within minutes she found the exact information the man had asked for. “The researcher was in shock,” she says. “He didn’t think he could have found it that fast. He asked me how I did that magic.”

It isn’t magic, Getselman says, it’s a skill. Getselman says it can be difficult to know exactly where to find and then extract the kind of information you want or need, but you can learn how to do it. As a healthcare professional, you may not always have a librarian to help you. But you do have access to one of the same tool they use – the Internet. And like any other powerful tool, you need to learn how to use it. Once you do, you can use the Internet to spend less time searching for medical information and more time making use of it.

Eight Ways to Improve Your Skills at Searching the Internet

1) Get trained by a librarian. A Librarian’s job is to know where the right information resides. “The fact you’re getting hits with your search,” says Getselman “doesn’t mean you’re getting what you need.” Ask your reference librarian to share with you the techniques he or she uses for finding the correct information. Where would a librarian begin a search? How would a librarian assess the reliability of a Web site? If your library offers classes or workshops in using the Internet, make time to take one.

2) Use online help features. “Don’t hesitate to click on help screens,” suggests Getselman. The few minutes it takes to read the “tips” that are available on a Web site, will pay huge dividends in terms of time they save in doing a search. Familiarize yourself with online supports. Look for help buttons and information screens. Find Web sites that teach you how to manage the flow of information.

3) Search for information using a database. A database is a collection of descriptive electronic records. MEDLINE, for example, is a database that describes medical literature published in scholarly journals. Using a database saves time and provides you the bibliographic information you need to find the articles you want. Some databases will even provide you abstracts of the articles you are looking for. You will still need to find or order the complete text.

4) Familiarize yourself with meta directories. Meta directories are “directories of directories.” Like libraries on line, they can lead you very quickly through a vast maze of informational resources. Some meta directories are sponsored by university health libraries and have a Web address that ends in the letters “edu.”  Many professional associations also maintain their own meta directories and gather information relevant to a specific discipline. Conway recommends that you “bookmark” these directories and use them to launch your search.

5) Subscribe to an online discussion group. These groups, sometimes referred to as lists or listservs, can be an excellent way to keep in contact with your colleagues. Online discussion groups can serve as forums to learn what others are doing in your field and to get feedback on your projects and ideas. I co-moderate NIFL-Health, an online discussion group sponsored by the National Institute for Literacy, and consider it an invaluable source of information about health literacy. A query to an online discussion group often yields the precise information you are seeking.

6) Bookmark the basics. Getselman recommends that clinicians limit the number of tools they use to search for information. She suggests bookmarking two or three databases, two or three meta directories, your professional association’s Web site. She also suggests you use not more than two online discussion groups. Beyond these numbers, she says, it’s hard to keep up with information that comes to you.

7) Take advantage of customized medical Internet services. These services deliver – or push – information to your desktop on a regular basis. Once you complete a profile of your interests, articles are sent to you without your having to ask for them. Medscape is an example of an Internet service that uses push technology to bring the latest information to you.

8) Be prepared when patients bring you medical information. When patients bring in printouts from the Internet, use it as an opportunity to partner with them. Be open to what they’ve learned, and be ready to recommend bona fide medical Web sites they can search, such as HealthGate. Managing information, says Conway, should be one of a healthcare provider’s most basic and shareable skills.

Resources to Help You Get Started

Learn How to Search for information

The Countway Library Tutorial on Internet Search Engines and click “on-line tutorials.”


  • PubMed,
  • This valuable resource contains approximately 10 million citations from 4000 medical journals. Information is updated monthly.
  • Specialized Databases via Internet Grateful Med,

Customized Internet Services

Consumer Web Sites

Suzy Conway is the assistant director for reference and education services, and Anna Getselman is the reference and education services librarian at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, 10 Shattuck Street, Boston.

Article reprinted with permission from On Call magazine and published by a division of Boston Globe Media.