Medical queries answered online Medline: The National Library of Medicine, which provides the free service to nine Maryland library systems, will soon introduce an Internet site.

October 12, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

When Nancy Reger's grown son needed surgery for an unusual eye condition, the Baltimore County library information specialist did some quick Internet research and was ready with a list of sophisticated medical questions for the surprised surgeon.

"Where did you get these questions?" asked the physician.

They came from a medical information service called "Medline," provided by the National Library of Medicine and now available to the public through 40 public library systems nationwide, including Baltimore County and Enoch Pratt Free library systems.

In an age of cost-driven medical care, "informed consumers are better patients," said Dr. Donald A. B. Lindberg, director of the National Institutes of Health, which oversees the medical library and the online service available from Laredo, Texas, to Ocean City.

And on Oct. 22, the National Library of Medicine will formally introduce a related medical information Web site, intended to be more accessible to the public than the specific, sometimes highly technical material available through Medline.

"Medline contains references and abstracts to medical journal articles. Some are very useful to the general public -- and some are very abstruse," said Bob Mehnert, a spokesman for the National Library of Medicine. "Creating our own Web site will lead people to other health information."

It also creates a wider base of public support for NIH, which is federally funded.

Medline, once available only to medical professionals, now is accessible for free through nine Maryland library systems: the Pratt; Baltimore, Dorchester, Kent, Montgomery, Talbot, Wicomico and Worcester counties; and the Salisbury library.

In Baltimore County, one librarian at each of the 15 branches is trained, according to Kenna Forsyth and Reger, county library specialists who are training the rest of their branch staffs to help people search the online database.

Information available through Medline can range from studies on herbal medicines and the effectiveness of zinc in treating the common cold to the kind of specialized information Reger obtained about her son's eye problem.

And it all comes from a reputable and objective source, not a commercially sponsored Web site, where advertising may be intertwined with facts.

Officials are watching closely to see how the service is received.

"We want to see if it's useful to consumers at the public libraries. Will it overwhelm them? Can they get the documents? We want to see how people work with public libraries," said Sandra D. Teitlebaum, the NIH librarian based at the University of Maryland, Baltimore who covers the Southeastern United States and Puerto Rico.

Library officials see a big public demand for medical information, noting that health questions are among the most common fielded by librarians.

In the year since Medline went public in a ceremony featuring Vice President Al Gore, the number of searches skyrocketed from 7 million to 120 million annually, with one-third done by consumers, Mehnert said. The other searches came mainly from hospitals and doctors.

The local experience with Medline appears to be similar.

"It's historically been the fourth most-used database we have," said Brooke Harding, the Pratt's Web manager. Job searches are the most common.

Baltimore County library users can get access to the Medline Web site by calling up the library's home page on a library branch computer, giving name and address, and going to a sub-heading of "health."

Users of the Pratt system can get access though the Pratt's terminals by going to the "health reference center" on the library's home page.

From home, a user can contact the Medline Web site at www.nlm.nih.gov/databases/freemedl.html. Once there, click on "Pub med."

Pub Date: 10/12/98

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