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Just what the doctor ordered? 

Welsh, S., Anagnostelis. B. & Cooke, A. Finding and using health and medical information on the Internet. London: Aslib-IMI, 2001. ISBN 0-85142-384-1 29.99 (Aslib members 24.00)

Reports of patients entering their doctor's surgery armed with a pile of printouts from the Internet (Muir Gray's syndrome of 'la maladie du grand print-out'), though primarily anecdotal in nature, attest to the pervasive influence of the medium on health care information.   Patients need skills in identifying relevant materials and understanding their contents.   Clinicians need to moderate and appraise conflicting messages.   Meanwhile the intermediary, whether health librarian or consumer information provider, is frequently seen as the guide along the highway.

In this context this new handbook is to be warmly welcomed.   From the very title we see an emphasis on the active - the finding and using - rather than the reflective.   Many of the chapter headings demonstrate a similar task-oriented focus eg. 'Finding out about research funding and research projects', 'Keeping up to date', 'Searching the Internet strategically'.   With 22 chapters, arranged in five easily navigable Sections - Internet quick tour, Finding information on the Internet, Communication, Evaluation and Taking Control, this 317 page book covers the essentials of using the Internet including a brief chapter on creating your own Web pages.   Frequent screen shots and helpful boxes and tables yield dividends for both serendipitous and purposive user alike.   This approach is achieved at the expense of detailed referencing with additional reading being indicative rather than comprehensive.

What is particularly impressive is the seamless integration of health content with technical medium.   Many books on health on the internet struggle to manage the schizoid tension between equipping the reader to drive the highway and pointing out the scenic landscapes encountered en route.   This book successfully reconciles such a tension.   For example, Chapter 10 on search engines and, indeed the subsequent chapter on meta-search engines, uses a realistic search example of 'zinc gluconate lozenges for treating colds in children' to illustrate contrasting or complementary features of the various search engines.   Practical tips and summary tables continue the emphasis on 'doing'.   Even for someone who uses health information from the Internet on a day-to-day basis there is much to stimulate and to expand the horizons.

An inevitable consequence of the attempt to capture the wealth of the Internet via the print medium is the number of links that pass their 'sell by date' within the life expectancy of each edition.   This book is no exception and its position within the volatile domain of health seems to exacerbate this problem.   My own casual research on the links of an Evidence Based Practice resource guide suggests that as many as 30% of URLs may be modified within an eighteen month period.   This is attested to by this book's chapter on 'Using the Internet to support evidence-based healthcare' where revisions since going to press include the migration of the mailbase discussion lists to Jiscmail and the appearance of single domain names to replace unmemorable academic file paths e.g. www.tripdatabase.com and www.nettingtheevidence.org.uk.

Just as it would be unfair to to judge a photograph, essentially a snapshot, by the standards of a video it would be invidious to pass too harsh a judgement based on currency alone – this book deservedly sets a new standard for Internet handbooks in the health domain.   As a contributor to two of its rival titles I find myself wishing, futilely as it appears, that this expert team had not delivered such an impressive masterclass!   I shall take scant consolation in the fact that the book's provenance, from the ASLIB portfolio, makes it more likely to reach information professionals than the 100,000 plus members of the medical profession in the UK!

Andrew Booth
Senior Lecturer in Evidence-Based
Healthcare Information, University of Sheffield
July 2001