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A New Line on Healthcare News
by
Posted On October 24, 2005
A new consumer-based Web site for healthcare was announced last week. Healthline (http://www.healthline.com) is a free Web site that has additional options (e.g., "saved searches") for those who register. Healthline was founded in 1999 as YourDoctor.com. Having found the earlier version useful, I wondered why the name was changed and wanted to check out the new content and focus for the site.

The site is clean and simple. A small but noticeable search button appears on the front page, as well as a list of the most commonly researched health topics, such as asthma, breast cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. The site also offers clear suggestions on ways of browsing. Some bloggers who looked at the site weren't impressed—they found the content to be the same as what appears on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Web site. (In some cases, the wording is exact; in general, there are just links to other sites).

Questions abounded about the background of the firm, the reasons for the business, what its management hoped to achieve, and what users should expect during the next 6 or so months. To get the answers to these questions, I held a lengthy conference call with Healthline's West Shell (CEO), Bill McGee (vice president of marketing and sales), Tony Gentile (vice preside product management), and Andrea Cousens (from the company's PR agency).

One fact became very clear: Healthline is not a content site. It is a specialized Web search engine. The company uses a proprietary software system with a specialized medical taxonomy to crawl, index, and then rank Web pages. The team is also developing more than 18,000 pages of proprietary content, but this will not be released onto the Web site until late in 4Q 2005 or perhaps early 2006. For now, the site is a search engine.

But why the confusion? And why does the Healthline site have the same information as the NIH site (the content is verbatim from NIH's Medical Encyclopedia)? Why did Healthline not credit the NIH? And what about the supply of reviewed articles by practicing physicians in their specialist fields?

The choice of wording by all parties has been poor. The content on the NIH Web site isn't created by the NIH. It's actually licensed content from a third party source named A.D.A.M. (http://www.adam.com). I suggested that perhaps the Healthline team should reword the phrase "Powered by A.D.A.M."—which could be interpreted as the name of Healthline's proprietary search software—to something along the lines of "content licensed from A.D.A.M." Admittedly, the NIH also could use a similar change, rather than just use minute print at the bottom of page.

Healthline licenses its news section from a third party source, Topix.net. The feeds change throughout the day. When I checked the breast cancer category in the morning, the first news article was more than 65 days old. A few hours later, the news was less than 20 minutes old. Of course, the 20-minute old article about whether Kylie Minogue will use conventional or alternative methods to treat her breast cancer may not be of interest to everyone. It may reassure some general visitors to see that even musicians or artists undergo the exact same experiences that they may be facing, but some visitors may not expect to classify such information as therapeutic.

I had a few really big questions for the team: Why do all this? Why bother with yet another consumer search engine? What's the point?

The reply was data to the nth degree … up to 80 percent of people did this for 65 percent of that type of searches and only x percent picked up useful information. The team didn't jump into the search system blindly. Instead, they commissioned a study from 2004 to 2005 on what, how, and when people searched. The report was released in May 2005 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project; it is now available online for free viewing at http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/156/report_display.asp.

Basically, the report stated that an increasing number of people are looking for healthcare information—eight out of every 10 users. Most of them are untrained researchers who enter one or two words into a search box and press the magic button. General search engines such as Google will return an unlimited number of hits. Scientific search engines such as Scirus (http://www.scirus.com) list PubMed and other clinically driven literature as the best resources.

The team felt that its software system, originally created under Intermap Systems and incorporated into Healthline, was the appropriate method. The content is managed by people who employ physicians and other professionals; they license the access to the content in addition to providing a means of access.

Current opinions of the site are still mixed. The main page is clearly marked "beta," and the Healthline management is interested in feedback. Gentile noted, "We can only change what we know."

For now, the site is still more beta than may be useful to many inexperienced users. People who use the Internet frequently will be able to navigate without problems. Less experienced searchers, who might be interested in the predetermined Common Search Topics, should find the first few pages easy to navigate, but they could get enmeshed in complexity and wordiness after a few pages.

The front page is clean, and the navigation is very simple. Choose a topic and click through. The "Narrow Search" terms listed in the left column could be reworded to make them easier to understand, perhaps with language such as "Is this what you are looking for?" or "Click here for more details." Another suggestion would be to condense entries to one or two words, instead of listing lengthy terms that end up on two lines. For example, in the category of Sleep Disorders, simply indicate "symptoms," "causes," and "organizations" instead of "Sleep Disorder Organizations," "Sleep Disorder Symptoms," and "Sleep Disorder Causes."

More advice: Move the Articles section for each Current Search Topic above the News listing. When looking for information on a topic, peer-reviewed articles are preferable to press releases. The site would also be vastly improved if the results of the search were bucketed into types of Web sites. Users would profit from knowing if they are visiting a hospital's Web site for background information on a disease or treatment options.

The Healthline site has a lot of potential, but it needs to remain marketed to the consumer. It will also need to be beefed up for the long term. Users—and Healthline management—should compare alternative sources, such as Google, WedMD, MedicineNet, etc. (By the way, researchers accustomed to the power of Boolean language will not find Healthline useful if they try to override the software. Clearly, consumers are the focus of the site.)

Overall, this is a decent beta version that end users may find worthwhile as it continues to evolve. Those people who are interested in content-driven sites should be on the lookout for upcoming announcements as the Healthline team unveils the 18,000 pages of promised content by early 2006.


Tara Breton is a librarian for a healthcare consulting company.

Email Tara Breton
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