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Tufts E-News --Information Overload: A Closer Look At MedlinePlus

Tufts E-News --Information Overload: A Closer Look At MedlinePlusThe National Institutes of Health is spending millions to make an online collection of medical research available to the public, an investment Tufts professor Jeff Glassroth believes is unwise.

Boston [09.29.05] Where do you turn when you have health-related questions? Do you call your doctor, or head straight for the computer to Google different medical terms and see what you can dig up? As more and more people go to the Internet to discover details about diseases and medical conditions, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is enhancing its online resources to provide people with the information they are looking for. But Tufts professor of medicine Jeff Glassroth, M.D., thinks that the NIH might be on the wrong track.

“Search engines harvest a wealth of information from the Web, ranging from patient-oriented explanations of diseases and treatment options to highly technical articles published in scientific journals,” Glassroth, who is also chairman of the American Thoracic Society’s Publications Committee, wrote in a recent Washington Times opinion piece he co-authored. “Most people find what they need by visiting patient-oriented sites and talking with their doctor, but in some instances, people want more.”

The NIH is responding to the cry for more medical information by spending millions to beef up MedlinePlus, an NIH and U.S. National Library of Medicine website that provides people with information about NIH-sponsored research to help answer their health-related questions.

Although the site seems to benefit web surfers in search of information about human health, Glassroth warns that it may actually be a public disservice in disguise.

“While on the face of it this seems like a boon for the public, there is in fact a poison pill hidden in this gift from the government,” he wrote.

Glassroth pointed out that the NIH estimates that it underwrites only about 10 percent of the research published each year. The public may not even realize that fact, he added.

Additionally, Glassroth explained in the op-ed that, while the research manuscripts that are included on the site have been peer-reviewed, many have not been subjected to a technical review or copy edit.

“These are services publishers provide to improve clarity and safeguard against potential hazards such as dosage errors,” he wrote.

Glassroth added that, through MedlinePlus, people will not have access to review articles and commentaries. Those “are particularly valuable to the public because they provide interpretation, and context for new research findings,” they wrote.

By pouring resources into its web database, Glassroth believes the NIH might be duplicating the efforts of nonprofit scientific publishers, which “have already made nearly 1 million articles freely available to the public and add about 10,000 more free articles to the web every month.”

“These articles represent not just 10 percent of research funded by NIH, but 100 percent of the basic and clinical research their journals publish,” he pointed out.

Glassroth and his co-author point out that nonprofit scientific publishers fulfill their purpose and make research available to the scientific and medical community as well as the public, and that NIH should focus on its main goal as a government agency.

“NIH’s primary mission is to support the research that leads to treatments and cures,” he wrote. “At a time when research funding is already constrained, NIH should not divert its scarce resources to build a partial collection of incomplete and potentially flawed information in the name of public access. To do so is medically and morally wrong, and is ultimately not in the public’s interest.”


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