Critiquing Review of Health Search at AltSearchEngines

The brand-new AltSearchEngines blog is off to a great start and I absolutely encourage libraryfolk to subscribe to it.

One of the problems with writing about a specialized kind of search engine is that to do so requires specialized knowledge. AltSearchEngines faces this challenge every day.

A recent post at AltSearchEngines seeks to overcome this problem in writing about health search by soliciting notes on a few sites by a cardiologist and a cardiology nurse.

I love the idea of the post, but not the post itself.

Who did the reviewing

What follows is just general feedback from one nurse and one doctor. Ask ten doctors how they feel about alt search engines, and you may get ten different answers.

It was generous and gracious of a physician and nurse to provide feedback, but they’re not expert in finding and evaluating health information. Physicians and nurses are expert in diagnosing and treating illness. If you want a professional who is expert in finding and evaluating medical information, seek out a medical librarian. If I wanted to solicit expert views on health search engines, I’d set up a poll and send an invitation to members of the MEDLIB-L listserv. I’m not saying that there aren’t physicians and nurses who are expert in searching for health information- I’m saying that their professional training doesn’t require it. Medical librarians, on the other hand, spend most of their time finding and evaluating health information.


The first observation that Dr. Binder and my wife made is that some search engines are designed to be used by Health Care Professionals (HCP); doctors and nurses. They simply are not intended to be used by non-medical people like you or me. Other search engines, however, are clearly targeted for health consumers or patients.

Absolutely true and extremely important- but after pointing out that tools for healthcare professionals are apples and tools for consumer healthcare information are oranges, the post goes on to compare them anyway. We all know what they say about comparing apples to oranges.

The post should have been broken up into at least two posts: one on search tools for health care professionals and one on search tools for consumer healthcare information. There are of course multiple categories within each of those, but the bottom line is that online health information search tools are far too varied to be usefully compared all at once. I hope that in the future AltSearchEngines will compare health information search tools of similar types in smaller groups.

What kind of feedback?
The expert views of a physician and nurse were summed up by listing tools that they “liked.” That’s interesting to know, but tells us nothing useful. We don’t learn what they liked about each of these tools, or what each tool might best be used for in their view.

Suggested reading

4 thoughts on “Critiquing Review of Health Search at AltSearchEngines

  1. David – you said “If you want a professional who is expert in finding and evaluating medical information, seek out a medical librarian.” And to this I say BRAVO! Now how do we go about getting this word out to the world in general!?
    And another BRAVO about pointing out that there is a difference among the searching tools used by HCP versus tools used for searching about consumer health information.

  2. Hi Mary-

    To be fair, AltSearchEngines also noted this important distinction. My criticism is that this distinction didn’t seem to inform the rest of the post.

    Thanks for the comment!


  3. David,

    Thank you for your review of my post. I have saved it so that when I revisit that topic I can improve the analysis. Of course, I would welcome a “Guest Author” on this topic at any time! (I will also check out MEDLIB-L)

    Ultimately, I still feel that is the doctors (and nurses) who dispense the advice (“Don’t use search engines, call me.” Or is it “Don’t call me, use xyz search engine” that bear the ultimate burden – if not liability.
    Charles Knight, editor

  4. I’m sure, Charles, that when you have a medical question that your wife (an RN) can’t answer, you ask your doctor.

    Y’know who your doctor calls if he/she doesn’t know the answer? His/her medical library. Why? Because doctors are expert at diagnosing and treating illness. They’re not trained in finding and evaluating healthcare information. Medical librarians are trained to do exactly this. Most doctors, I’m sorry to say, aren’t qualified to comment on tools for finding health information.