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The Quest: How to Get a Medical Librarian to Do Your Search for Free

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Credit: CDC/Debora Cartagena

In my last blog post, I said one of the things I like so much about MedlinePlus (a service of the National Library of Medicine, or NLM) is that “the medical librarians at the NLM have already done a lot of the heavy lifting for you.”

I thought I’d give more detail about what I mean, using the same example I gave last time: a search for trustworthy information about “throat cancer.”

You can find a screenshot of the general search results in my last post. If you do this on the live site, you may get slightly different results, depending on when you do it, as the information is updated daily.

Here I want to zoom in on the very first result to my basic query. . .

screenshot of MedlinePlus page

 

There are two things to point out:

1)    This is a ranked listing of results that starts with general information and becomes more specific as you go down the list. Behind the scenes, the medical librarians at the NLM have programmed a complex search algorithm to create the ranking that doesn’t depend on popularity or number of links but instead on the scientific quality of the information.

2)    Any time you see the National Library of Medicine in parentheses next to a search result, you know that you’ve hit one of the 900 general health topics that have already been curated by the NLM. (See arrow above.)

So, now I click on the first link (circled in the screenshot above).

That brings me to this page with general symptoms and anatomy and leads me to perhaps one of my best tips for getting the most out of any MedlinePlus search, which is always scroll all the way to the bottom of any page you get for your search results!

screenshot from NLM page

 

If you scroll through, you’ll get about four more windows-worth (depending on the size of your computer display) of automated search results broken out by “overviews,” “latest news,” “diagnosis/symptoms,” “journal articles,” etc.

Screenshot from MedlinePlus

(Click on these thumbnails for a larger view)

Screenshot from MedlinePlus

Screenshot from MedlinePlus

Screenshot from MedlinePlus

You may notice the categories are NOT in alphabetical order. This is another ranked list that has been generated based on the algorithms programmed by the information specialists at the NLM. As before, the lists go from the general to the specific. Once you understand the logic behind the search algorithm, it’s like having the services of a medical librarian for free! (Great use of our tax dollars, if you ask me.)

I missed this incredibly valuable point for several weeks while using MedlinePlus at first because I typically don’t scroll all the way down a website page. I have since learned the error of my ways—and gotten to a heck of a lot of useful medical information—particularly from the section on journal articles—that  much faster as a result.

Stayed tuned for more of my tips for getting the most out of online medical searching in upcoming posts.

Was this information helpful? Let me know in the comments section. Or share your own search tips.

This post is the second in a series of posts about various tips and tricks for online medical searches that I’ve picked up over the years. I also plan to include a bunch of other people’s hard-won habits for finding just the right study, clinical trial or care-giving guide.

By gathering these pointers in one place, I hope these blog posts will help people get up to speed faster if they suddenly find themselves needing to research a health condition or understand treatment options. Each post is tagged “how-to-search-medical-info” so you can see what else has been covered and find other installments in the series.

If you have something meaningful to contribute, please use the comments section below. If this project starts gaining momentum, we’ll figure out a more efficient way to collect and rate your tips and ideas.

Previous posts include:

The Quest: Practical Advice for Online Medical Searches

 

About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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Comments 5 Comments

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  1. 1. tuned 11:05 am 03/31/2014

    Nice.
    Hopefully this will put a huge dent in the misinformation on the web.

    Link to this
  2. 2. hkraznodar 2:57 pm 04/1/2014

    Thank you! I have bookmarked MedlinePlus.

    Link to this
  3. 3. VDPSOY85 4:40 pm 04/1/2014

    Thank you for Medline plus. Will check if it has “SNIPs” diseases.

    Link to this
  4. 4. jplesman 9:26 pm 04/1/2014

    I am an avid follower of MedlinePLus for searches in regard to Mental Illness and Nutrition (at Facebook). I have created my own index at:
    https://docs.google.com/document/pub?id=1sKYIT2wfJquvtHQNuCGRp78eeuOFE915cw9-cWhCVLw

    But unfortunately MedlinePlus do not last long. The above information is very valuable when you want to update research.
    Thanks

    Link to this
  5. 5. MTaylorMLS 9:53 am 04/2/2014

    From the title of this series, you are acknowledging that medical librarians have the expertise and experience to perform a search for medical information. As a Medical Librarian, I would like to point out that a number of hospital librarians are willing and able to provide quality searches and information for patients and families. Many hospitals do this for free as a community service, and many hospitals have consumer health libraries as well. Why not go right to the experts?

    Link to this

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