MedlinePlus: Worth Its Weight in Gold

MedlinePlus is a free health information resource from the United States’ National Library of Medicine. This post is not a comprehensive review of the entire site, but will give a general overview and highlight some of my favorite areas. MedlinePlus is geared to provide information for patients and the general public. Most of the information has been written at the 5th to 8th grade level. It is intended to be a consumer-based resource and not for medical professionals. The information within MedlinePlus provides selected links to reliable healthcare web sites and information generated at the National Library of Medicine. It contains links to over 975 medical topics, including links to the A.D.A.M. medical encyclopedia and the Merriam-Webster medical dictionary. The statistics page of the website reports that there is Information from over 1,000 organizations containing over 35,000 links to authoritative health information. MedinePlus is a very good source of medical information with many of the resources updated regularly. It has a single search box with an autocomplete/spellcheck feature for those medical terms or conditions that may be harder to spell correctly. There are three main sections of the site: Health Topics, Drugs & Supplements and Videos & Tools with links to each section at the top of the site’s home page

MedlinePlus

Search

The search algorithm typically retrieves many results and provides a general overview of the health condition to assist the medical layman understand the topic in easy to understand terms. On the left hand side of the page is a feature where one can refine the results by type. A sample search on “Diabetes” displays resulted in 5,729 results. Here is a screenshot of the multiple ways to narrow the hit set:

MedlinePlus Search

As can be seen, there are many different ways to limit the search set, including new stories, videos and information on drugs and supplements with an association to diabetes.

Drugs and Supplements

One of my favorite areas of MedlinePlus is the Drugs & Supplements section. This section provides webpages to help consumers find reliable information on drugs, herbs and supplements. The drug and supplement information is “available from the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) via AHFS® Consumer Medication Information, and Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database Consumer Version.” Within the section it is broken up into the drugs subsection and the Herbs and Supplements subsection. The Drugs area is intended to help consumers learn about “prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines” that includes their “side effects, dosage, special precautions” among other information. The page is set up so a consumer could browse by the generic or brand name of the drug.

The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database Consumer Version “is an evidence-based collection of information on alternative treatments. MedlinePlus has 100 monographs on herbs and supplements.” The database is a compilation of several databases that rate “dietary supplements and herbal remedies” on their “effectiveness, usual dosage, and drug interactions.” Information is pulled from the following resources:

  • National Cancer Institute
  • National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
  • National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements
  • National Toxicology Program
  • Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database

As with the drug information page, the Herbs and Supplements page is also organized as an alphabetical list of each herb or supplements and while not comprehensive, it contains reliable information on many of the most common herbs and supplements. I have found the listings from the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database to be especially helpful with commentary under the following headings:

  • What is it?
  • How effective is it?
  • How does it work?
  • Are there safety concerns?
  • Are there interactions with medications?
  • Are there interactions with herbs and supplements?
  • Are there interactions with foods?
  • What dose is used?
  • Other names
  • Methodology
  • References

The “How effective is it?” heading will tell you if an herb or supplement has any information on its effectiveness and will indicate if there is no information on its effectiveness; however, even if something has not been proven effective or not, there is usually information on the relative safety of the listed compounds. I also like the “Other names” heading that may help find alternative names for a listed herb or supplement.

Final Thoughts

If you are interested in articles about MedlinePlus, including its development, outreach, research and patient education, the following page on the website contains a bibliography on those topics and more. For those who have used Medline/PubMed, here is a good webpage describing the difference between MedlinePlus and Medline/PubMed.

In most of my library instruction sessions, I want my students to know where they can find good, reliable medical information. It may not help them write a better paper for their next project, but it may help them direct Uncle Joe or Aunt Josephine who has just been diagnosed with diabetes or Crohn’s Disease find good information instead of relying on the open web with its penchant for anything goes. When it comes to one’s health, good information is worth its weight in gold.

Greg Nelson, Chemical & Life Science Librarian, Brigham Young University, greg_nelson@byu.edu

We welcome your comments and suggestions. If you have a resource that you would like to see highlighted please leave us a comment.

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