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HOW TO SEARCH THE WEB FOR MEDICAL INFORMATION
The internet is becoming an excellent resource for medical information, surpassing many books and journals as a first step in gaining information. The advantage of the internet system over publication of medical books is that it is easy to update regularly during this time of rapid advances in medical knowledge; its advantage over medical journals is that it is easier to search for information from multiple journals over several years. One disadvantage of the internet, in terms of getting medical information, is that a person who is not familiar with the internet structure may end up finding reports that are intended to sell health-related products. Such sales-dominated sites provide information skewed to promote the sales rather than providing purely educational reports. Also, it is relatively easy to encounter journalistic reports that overstate the potential of a new research project or treatment, as well as to encounter reports from foreign countries telling of treatments that sound good but are inaccessible (and often based on shoddy research). Increasingly, patients bring to their providers some of these non-academic and poor quality reports, seeking confirmation of the claims or access to the treatments. For the health care provider, it is important to avoid such traps and to focus on certain search mechanisms that can provide the most valuable academic information quickly. In this article, three search systems will be briefly described. These three may be sufficient to gain access to most of the information of interest.
When searching for herb related information, it is most valuable to use the botanical name as a search term, rather than various common names, since the botanical name is most often used in keyword entries. When searching for applications of herbs, it may be best to use the term "clinical trials" in the search field to first narrow the topics to use of the herbs in people; otherwise, your initial search may include animal studies, in vitro studies, or studies related to the plant materials that have nothing to do with health applications. In some cases, it is possible to combine a medical term (e.g., disease name) and a general herb term (e.g., Chinese herbs) to get only the specific information available on that subject.
In order to hone the relevance of your search results, enclose multiple-word search terms in quote marks. This will direct the search engine to locate the whole term rather than either word; i.e., "Chinese herbs" would return pages that featured the term Chinese herbs, not Chinese and/or herbs.
One way to weed out some of the misinformation on general web sites is to take any claims made and search for articles in support of those claims, particularly on the technical search sites PubMed and WebMD (or again on the general sites, with appropriate caution in interpreting the claims). It is sometimes possible to find sites that contain information specifically debunking the claims (for example, Quackwatch; the full site address is http://www.quackwatch.com/ghindex.html).
It is common for people to search the internet and find articles from China or other countries describing an herb-related remedy for a disease. The person who conducts the search may then wish to purchase the product. In most cases, the material cannot be purchased. What is being published on the internet, often as an abstract or informal paper, is no more than the report of some work done at a research center. The material that was tested may have been specially prepared for the research project, or may be a product that is not an export item. In almost all cases, there is not enough information to indicate what the test material actually contained, so that it cannot be replicated. This kind of publication is usually not intended to generate current sales of a product, but only to report on a research project, with the potential for product sales in the future (rarely realized, because no one will invest on the basis of such limited research). Once a product has been exported and is available, it will appear (via internet search) on an internet site for purchase, easily found by a search on Google with the product name or even detailed references to its uses, constituents, or other related information. Failure to find any reference to sale of the product generally means that it is not accessible.
In order to get more information about a subject than may have been revealed on an initial search, any abstracts, articles, or references that show up in the first search may be the source of other key terms that can be the subject of a follow-up search. For example, there are sometimes organizations, commissions, or authors who have tackled a particular subject and might be briefly mentioned in the first search results. A new search, based on those names, with cross-reference to the subject matter of interest, could yield additional highly relevant reports. Continuing this procedure just a few times will usually reveal virtually all web pages related to the desired subject. One can also switch to a different search engine, such as AlltheWeb, Lycos, AltaVista or Yahoo, which may catch a useful site missed by the Google system. Each of the search engines has a mechanism for updating its information, and the different systems may be able to retrieve new web pages at different times.
Those interested in accurate information about herbal medicine topics must be cautioned, unfortunately, about visiting web sites that are specifically oriented towards the general subjects of herbs, natural health care, alternative medicine, and similar categories. Many of these sites provide information that is filtered not for veracity but for being favorable to the cause. For this reason, academic sites that might include information about herbs but that are not specifically dedicated to that subject are recommended here. The ITM web site (http://www.itmonline.org) is dedicated to providing a balanced presentation, including numerous cautionary articles; even so, because it is a resource for traditional medicine, the majority of its information is related to reports that have an overall favorable view of the subject.