MedlinePlus vs. healthfinder: Must We Choose?


On the MEDLIB-L list, someone was recently asking why there are two major consumer health information sites supported by the government — MedlinePlus and healthfinder.gov.

I love them both, as well as a variety of other consumer health websites. Here is my reply, slightly edited to fit this blog format.

You might as well ask why does the government supports websites for both the CDC and the DHHS, or for Cancer.gov and CDC.gov/cancer, or many other examples. Basically, they aren’t doing the same thing, they aren’t targeting the same audience, they aren’t used in the same way, they aren’t providing duplicated content, AND having multiple sites maximizes the likelihood of general public searchers discovering quality information.

How I promote these two resources to my patrons and students is with something like the following rationale.

MedlinePlus.gov
MedlinePlus

MedlinePlus is a wonderful gateway one-stop-shop for the person-on-the-street with a new diagnosis or who has a casual health question. They have assembled an excellent suite of information resources, and the librarians follow rigorous criteria in the websites they select and include on the topic pages. MedlinePlus is very responsive to consumer input, tracking search queries and developing new information guides in those areas being sought but for which a guide does not currently exist. The inclusion of a variety of dictionaries, encyclopedia, drug resources, media formats, images, local information, and tools to find clinicians make for a mature and comprehensive site. In the niche they fill, I cannot think of anything better.

Because health information needs are rarely if ever one-size-fits-all, it is this very expertise in meeting the needs of their target audience than makes them not always the best match for other audiences. This is only proper. Individuals may want more detailed information, be frustrated with searching for health information in general search engines, but still not be ready for the full clinical information experience we would provide to a healthcare provider. Some people have searching preferences or different information seeking styles that are not a match for having information provided in a package. Some folk just want the next step up — they’ve already reviewed the information in MedlinePlus, but it didn’t answer their questions or they simply want more. People with complex medical conditions or rare diseases may need something different than MedlinePlus, but not be sure where to look. Last but far from least, there are the contrarians, people who feel compelled to second guess the approved information, who want to select from the broadest possible pool of information resources, who have had experiences that have sadly led them to a lack of trust in the mainstream health professions.

healthfinder.gov
healthfinder.gov

healthfinder offers that next step. Even if you just look at the numbers, it is obvious that healthfinder is targeting a broader audience, with MedlinePlus having 750 topics and healthfinder over 1600. Because the information in healthfinder is not as strictly selected as that in MedlinePlus it offers a fluidity and flexibility that is attractive to some people. It offers them a somewhat broader range of content, a sense of personal control in searching and selecting content. Their interface seems to do a very attractive job of focusing on health promotion and behavior change. I adore their collection of online checkup tools. These are great in empowering the person seeking health information while still steering them to appropriate healthcare when it really is necessary. These online screening tools serve a secondary purpose as educational tools — as you answer the questions, you learn what the important issues are for a given condition or concern. I love that they include quizzes and little health games. I love the health promotion e-cards. I love the little value-added content pieces they offer, like National Health Observances Calendar.

My very favorite part of healthfinder is their search tool. They have the most amazing custom search engine (CSE) I’ve ever seen for consumer health information, absolutely beautiful. This CSE has preselected the finest in consumer health information from the best sources, and excluded the non-consumer health information from the same sources. “You can search for resources on a wide range of health topics selected from over 1,600 government and non-profit organizations by using healthfinder.gov’s Health A-Z topic and text search.” When you use their search tool, everything you get back is quality consumer health information. I consider this very powerful, sort of the best kept secret in consumer health. Just enter a term on their search box, and go. It isn’t obvious that you are searching beyond their site, which is why I call it a “secret”. For more information, check here:

healthfinder: Search Tips: http://healthfinder.gov/search/searchtips.asp

But I don’t stop with even MedlinePlus and healthfinder. I keep going. Here are more of my favorites, matched to the types of questions for which I find them valuable.

What can I say? There is genuine value in the old adage “Different strokes for different folks.” It is disrespectful of individual differences and individual needs to try to force healthcare consumers to accept only one source. Rather than think of MedlinePlus and healthfinder as competing products ( a misguided view if I ever saw one!), I would prefer to think of them as companion resources, each expanding on and filling a niche that the other does not, friends that balance and expand on each other’s view even when they agree to disagree, respecting and embracing those differences.

13 responses to “MedlinePlus vs. healthfinder: Must We Choose?

  1. This is a great review, thank you!

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  2. Thank you very much. I’ve been thinking this for a long time, and should have said so sooner.

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  3. Absolutely superb! So glad I hit the forward button to you for this the question–I really am! You have outdone yourself, Patricia.

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  4. Thank you, Anna, for always thinking of things that interest me.🙂

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  5. I agree, the content and audience are different and both offer our patrons great materials. Thanks for summarizing the value in an engaging way.

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  6. Thanks, Patricia. This is such excellent information. I’m a technical services librarian who assists with reference work in a limited capacity. Finding such great evaluative work like this is so very helpful to folks like me.

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  7. Thank you very much! This has been simmering in my brain for a long time. The great question is what inspired me to get it out, and off my chest.🙂

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  10. Thank you for this great feedback and blog post that references healthfinder.gov. We are very appreciative of your work and leadership in the Health 2.0 field. We agree that Medline Plus and healthfinder.gov serve as complimentary sites to provide the public with reliable and rigorously vetted health information.

    In 2008, healthfinder.gov underwent a re-design to focus on prevention and wellness information and consumer resources that are easy understand, particularly for people with limited health literacy or limited time. It is our goal to provide personalized, actionable health and wellness information and tools presented in an easy-to-read format with simple navigation.

    Thank you, and we welcome you and your readers’ continued feedback.

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