Attack of the Health Portals
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The idea of providing health information on the Internet never really went away, it just had a little relapse.
One of the Web's most well-known health sites -- DrKoop.com, founded in 1997 by former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop -- set a bad example when it had a much-publicized heart attack. The site went public in 2000 and at one point had a market value of more than $1 billion. But the company foundered and was delisted by Nasdaq only a year later. The site name was purchased for $186,000 by Vitacost and the brand is now operated by a group called MDchoice.
The good news for health consumers -- which ultimately includes all of us -- is that reliable health-care information is becoming more widely available than ever. The upshot of this may be of great significance to you or your company.
New Entrants Offer Expanded Health Info
• PatientInform.org has just gone live as a pilot project to unearth health research that might otherwise remain buried behind fee-based subscription services. The site is a joint effort of the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Heart Association.
• MammaHealth.com launched just yesterday as a specialized offshoot of Mamma.com, a Web search engine. The new health site "has harnessed the power of the Deep Web by hand-picking the most relevant medical sources for credible health information and crawling deep into the content these sites provide," according to Nicole Festa, a company p.r. representative. "You can simply type in the word diabetes and instantly get back credible information, not disorganized results leading you to sites trying to sell you pharmaceuticals or information from dubious sources."
• Answers.com launched in January as a serious attempt to respond to search queries with informative articles rather than unrelated lists of links, à la Google. Although the site isn't limited to health concerns, it does quite a credible job on medical topics, providing a series of articles from established reference sources.
Of these three efforts, PatientInform.org is the most interesting. That's because it represents a ground-breaking attempt to wrest medical research studies from publications that otherwise charge hefty subscriber fees to read them.
Information Wants To Be Free
Ironically, you can't go to PatientInform.org and type diabetes or any other keyword. Instead, PatientInform is more like a code name for the information-liberating campaign of the three health groups sponsoring it. These nonprofit associations are determined to make research studies available to the people who need them, free of charge, no matter who may own the original, copyrighted material.
"What PatientInform is adding is one important part," says David Sampson, a media relations representative for the American Cancer Society. "We link to the actual study, which is normally blocked off behind a subscription barrier."
Some medical publishers won't allow any cost-free links to the studies they publish. But because of the prestige of the nonprofits sponsoring PatientInform, many publishers have decided to allow the groups to link without cost to material that otherwise requires a paid subscription.
To get access to these studies, a consumer should first go to the sponsoring nonprofit that's related to a particular disease or medication. For example, if you're looking for the latest information on multiple myeloma, go to ACS News Center of the American Cancer Society's site. Clicking the link regarding the disease reveals a summary of a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, with a link to the full article. The PatientInform logo on that page indicates that the information is an outcome of the nonprofit groups' efforts to make such information available for free.
The Challenge Of Providing A Simple User Interface
As important as the groups' goal may be, the PatientInform.org site unfortunately doesn't yet have a user interface that's convenient for consumers to use. Far from providing a simple search box for visitors, the site makes you drill down just to find links to the three participating organizations where the useful information is actually located.
Sampson says this is because the combined site is still a pilot program. He promises that the site's search functions will become easier in the future.
Even at this early stage, however, the PatientInform campaign is unearthing information that was previously difficult or expensive for lay persons to find. "A patient already has access to some of these [reports], but you'd have to be very savvy," Sampson says. For example, some medical studies can be found in printed form in university libraries -- but this is hardly as convenient as looking them up on the Web.
PatientInform's philosophy of converting fee-based information to free is one that could apply to many other fields, not just health. It's a model that profit-making corporations as well as nonprofit organizations should look into.
In addition to writing a column for internet.com's EarthWeb, Brian Livingston is the editor of WindowsSecrets.com and the co-author of "Windows Me Secrets" and nine other books. Send story ideas to him via his contact page.