To Google or not to Google? How to find reliable children’s health info on the web

Your child is wheezing, coughing and sometimes short of breath. You’re pretty sure these might be signs of asthma so you make an appointment to see the doctor. In the meantime – if you’re like most parents – you’ll probably sit down in front of your computer and start searching the Internet to learn more about asthma. With so many resources at your fingertips, it’s hard to resist. But what’s the best way to go about it?

Lynn Kiraly-Batist, librarian at the Family Resource Library at the Montreal Children’s Hospital of the MUHC, says that search engines can be a great help in finding answers to your health questions but you need to know a few basics to get the most out of your search. Here she offers some practical suggestions on how to quickly get to the sources that will help you better understand your child’s health issues.

So how many articles do you really need to read?
Most of us have favourite sites that we consider reliable sources for everything from travel to cooking to music. But when it comes to our children’s health, we don’t always know where to start or which sites to trust.

Search engines are designed to gather information from Web sites around the world so that when you request a particular topic, the results will list hundreds, thousands or even millions of sites to look at. The best known and perhaps most widely-used search engine is Google. According to Ms. Kiraly-Batist, “It’s a very powerful tool but more often than not it produces more information than we’ll ever need. That’s where search engines specializing in consumer health information can help.”

Ms. Kiraly-Batist recommends using search tools that are managed by qualified experts who have already done the preliminary work for you. That work includes reviewing the material, selecting appropriate sources for the public and organizing it in a way that helps you easily narrow your search. Useful sites for pediatric health topics include MedLine Plus (US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health), the Canadian Pediatric Society, New York Online Access to Health (NOAH), Lab Tests Online, and National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). All these sites provide English content but there are several bilingual sites including Public Health Agency Canada, Orphanet (rare disorders) and of course, the MCH web site which has 250 professionally-approved articles. French language information is also found on CiSMeF (Catalogue et Index des Sites Médicaux Francophones).

Here’s a simple example to illustrate the point. Using Google, type ‘asthma children’ in the search field. As of writing this article, this search returned 2,470,000 results (a small number compared to the 31 million results for asthma alone!) A quick scan of the first few pages of results shows sites ranging from associations to magazines to pharmaceutical companies. Some of the sites don’t even deal exclusively with asthma in children and the right-hand margin displays commercial sites promoting asthma treatments.

Now go to MedLine Plus, a site developed by professionals who create directories of health topics. Follow these simple steps:
1.    select “Health Topics” at the top of the page which will take you to an A to Z listing
2.    choose “A” for asthma
3.    scroll down the alphabetical listing until you see “Asthma in Children”
4.    click on the link

The results? An easy-to read table that outlines about 85 professionally selected links covering news, treatments, disease management, research, and tools and tutorials. In short, the professionals have done the homework for you!

Think of it as a library
When you take a book out of the library you can be sure that at least a few people were involved before the book got to your library shelf. The author wrote and verified their work. There’s a good chance that an editor reviewed it. A publisher decided it was worthwhile to print it. A reviewer or journalist may have commented on it. And finally, a librarian chose it for the library’s collection. By contrast, any organization – or anyone for that matter – can create and publish a web site without these important review processes.

The search engine sites mentioned above are similar to a library in that professionals have reviewed the content and chosen it for their sites. However it’s important to remember that nothing replaces the advice of a professional. As Ms. Kiraly-Batist  says, “We always make sure to tell people that reading up on a health topic doesn’t replace the advice of a professional. These search engines and Web sites can help answer some of our questions, but it’s ultimately the healthcare professional who examines your child and makes the diagnosis and recommendations for ongoing care.”

Search engines are a tool to learn more and can help you prepare more relevant questions for your child’s doctor. “It’s proven that health outcomes are better if parents are better informed,” says Ms. Kiraly-Batist. “And parents can become better informed if they use the most appropriate, current and reliable search engines.”

For a more detailed list of recommended search engines and tools, visit the Family Resource Library web site.