Nitpicks: CNN’s “Tips for savvy medical Web surfing”

Blame Rachel. She started it by offering a critique of CNN’s Tips for savvy medical Web surfing:

In this section about searching for articles in the major medical literature database, PubMed, Guthrie advises reading just the beginning and end of the study, stating that “The conclusion will tell you whether the treatment they studied was effective, moderately effective, or not at all effective.”

This is simply not true as an absolute, and it is the exact opposite of how many expert medical librarians are trained to read papers. The abstract, introduction, conclusion and discussion sections of a paper most reflect the way the authors want to present their data, and may exaggerate findings or make statements that are not supported by the methodology and data. These are the very sections in which authors attempt to make their case for why their work matters – they tell you what the authors think their findings mean, but don’t actually prove it definitively.

Rachel is right. Her criticism moved me to re-read the article with a more critical eye. Here are some nitpicks:

The CNN article says:

To get rid of the junk, use a search engine that looks only at reputable sites that have been vetted by health professionals. Dirline, run by the National Library of Medicine, is one such engine, as are and searches for information on government health Web sites.

First, neither Dirline or MedlinePlus are search engines. Dirline is a searchable directory of organizations in healtthcare, MedlinePlus searches only its own content, including links to external reputable resources. (See? Nitpicking.)

Second and more importantly, it is ridiculous to compare iMedix to MedlinePlus and to describe iMedix as a resource that looks “only at reputable sites that have been vetted by health professionals.” iMedix’s own About page says:

Whether you’re looking for symptoms, diseases, treatments, or simply general health information, you will be searching together with many other people. Members of the iMedix community assist each other by sharing their experiences and ranking medical content in order to make health information personal, organized and accessible to any individual.

[My emphasis]

Translation: The information on iMedix isn’t vetted by health professionals- it is vetted by other laypeople.

It shows, too. I tried searching for Crohn’s. Here are the top results:

High-quality links vetted by health professionals? Comparable to MedlinePlus in any way? No.

4 thoughts on “Nitpicks: CNN’s “Tips for savvy medical Web surfing”

  1. David, you’re absolutely right about the comparison. I focused on the PubMed bit because the approach to article-reading immediately irritated me, but you make a very good point.

  2. I checked iMedix compared to the other search engines and i like it better. More relevant and i also get to talk to people.

  3. Pingback: “Tips for Savvy Medical Web Surfing” - A Critique « Women’s Health News

  4. Danny-

    Good for you. But it isn’t comparable to MedlinePlus, the links are NOT vetted by health profesionals, and the top results are NOT high-quality sources of authoritative information.