Looking up information about prescription medications used to mean thumbing through the pages of the big blue Physicians’ Desk Reference (PDR), or more recently, searching the PDR website. But for a really comprehensive search that includes extensive clinical trial data, you can’t beat DailyMed, another one of the authoritative-and-free-to-use offerings from the National Library of Medicine (NLM).

You can always treat DailyMed as a simple search engine. Just type in the name of a drug, like Gleevec—the anti-cancer pill that works against some kinds of leukemia and gastrointestinal tumors—and you’ll get the standard descriptions: generic name manufacturer, how it works, dosage and side effects.

But there is so much more to DailyMed. For example, if you look to the left hand column, you have several key options for even more information about a drug, including:

Or once you’ve learned to which class or biochemical grouping a drug belongs, you can check to see what else is available in the same category—particularly important with chemotherapy drugs such as Gleevec (a kinase inhibitor) and anti-depressants.

You can even report a bad reaction you may have experienced while taking the drug ("Report Adverse Event).

Part of the reason DailyMed searches are so powerful has to do with its integration into the other NLM databases. But the way the information is submitted in the first place—known as the way it is structured—also plays a major role.

Ever since 2005, the labeling information for all drugs and biologics that are submitted to the Food and Drug Administration must be entered in a particular electronic format that allows it to be reused in other applications without the need for additional inputting or conversion of information. (Details on the specific XML markup requirements can be found at the FDA’s Structured Product Label resource page.)

These sorts of behind-the-scenes initiatives for managing large data sets are going to become increasingly important, in my opinion, as medicine becomes more oriented towards genetics (and the exponential growth in data generation that implies). The more computers and databases are designed to talk to each other in ways that humans can understand as well, the easier the search for authoritative medical information will be for all of us.

Previous posts in The Quest series:

$84,000 Miracle Cure Costs Less Than $150 to Make

How To Get A Medical Librarian to Do Your Search for Free

Practical Advice for Online Searches