Want Health Info? Less Is More

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When it comes to health care information, less can be more. If you're looking for specific information about a condition or medication, too much information can be overwhelming. If you look up the word "flu" in Google, for example, you'll get nearly 63 million hits. Admittedly, Google ranks the sites it returns according to its calculation of importance but you're still going to find way more information than you can possibly use.

Healthline, a San Francisco-based startup has a different strategy. Its new search engine, which launched Oct. 17, is focused purely on health-related searches.

Healthline, by design, doesn't have nearly as much information about the flu as Google, instead the company narrows down the search to the universe of health care sites. A Healthline search for flu returns a manageable 238 hits.

But it doesn't simply point you to Web sites. The system also draws you a "HealthMap" based on your search. Because this search engine is specialized, it actually knows that "flu" is a synonym for "influenza" and also knows something about what the flu really is. The HealthMap is a graphic chart that breaks the search into categories such as risk factors, evaluation and tests, treatment, prevention, anti-viral medications and more.

When you click on one of the choices, it further narrows your search. The company says that HealthMap was "developed in conjunction with more than 1,100 leading physicians and medical informatics professionals."

Healthline can also help your broaden and narrow your search. If you type in heart attack, it will suggest that you click on "heart disease" to find out more general information. If you type in cough, it will give you sites that deal with cough as well as a link to the more broader category of respiratory diseases.

Click here for Larry Magid's podcast interview with West Shell, CEO of Healthline.

To give the site a real-world test, I enlisted the help of a friend of mine who is facing surgery for a torn rotator cuff. The first thing we did was misspell the term as "rotator" cuff to make sure Healthline would check for misspellings the way Google does. To its credit, it came back with "did you mean "rotator cuff."

It then displayed a link to the HealthMap which covered the anatomy, causes, symptoms, diagnostic tests and specific treatments, customized for this particular problem. The "broaden search" area was smart enough to provide optional information about "sprains and strains" as well as "sports medicine." The "Narrow Search" section offered "shoulder impingement syndrome" and "rotator cuff disorder treatment" among other options.

In addition to sites it finds on the Internet, Healthline may also display sites with what it calls "doctor reviewed information." That data, which is provided by Adam, a leading health information company, is clearly marked so that you can distinguish it from the other sites that are found.

The service also features what it says are "more than 200 topically-focused health channels" (I didn't count them) that provide information about diseases, conditions and therapies in a way that is contextually relevant. If you click on diabetes, for example, you'll get a series of articles as well as news stories about the disease.

Of course there are plenty of other ways to find health related information including other search engines or just visiting medical Web sites such as webmd.com, MedLinePlus, Mayo Clinic and others (you'll find a selected directory at my site).

But the advantage of Healthline is that it's specific enough to focus just on health but broad enough to include information from a variety of relevant sites.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."