Government websites you should know about: Medline Plus

Medline Plus  front pageMedline Plus is a database made available by the National Library of Medicine. Most library databases require a subscription that only libraries can afford to pay. Because Medline Plus originates from the federal government, it is free.

As the name implies, it is something called Medline with additional features. Medline itself is the online version of Index Medicus. For anyone who remembers having to use Reader’s Guide, Index Medicus was one of a number of similar reference serials for specialists. Now anyone can use it and understand it.
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Index Medicus, Medline, and a history of research techniques

Index Medicus

Some old volumes of Index Medicus

Using a printed periodical index required applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair for a long time. The shelf life of scientific research tends to be short. Medical practitioners could find what they needed in the most recent volumes. Or more likely, they asked the hospital librarian to search for them.

Medical researchers, on the other hand, pretty much had to look through the entire run. The first requirement of a peer-reviewed scientific paper is a literature review. Again, librarians probably performed most of the searches. It started in 1879, by the way.

Imagine the joy, then, when the National Library of Medicine offered Index Medicus online under the name Medline.

At that time, time online was expensive. Searching required knowledge of database structure, Boolean logic, proximity operators, etc. Librarians had to design their search strategy offline, log in, execute the search as quickly as possible, print the results, and log out.

A “clean” search was narrowly focused and returned only highly relevant articles. It would inevitably fail to return other highly relevant articles that fell outside the search strategy.

A “dirty” search returned many more articles. Many of them would be useless. Therefore the librarian had to decide if a single dirty search or multiple clean searches would be the most cost-effective way to obtain as many relevant citations as possible.

When I took my online searching class in 1996, one of my classmates grumbled about having to learn all that mumbo jumbo only to be too low on the totem pole to be allowed near the computer used for searching once she found a job.

Instead, the entire technique of online searching taught in that class quickly became obsolete. Thanks to the World Wide Web, search became cheap. All the databases migrated there. Search logic remained an arcane skill for a while longer. Then came Google.
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Medline Plus

MedlinePlus health issuesMedline remains the best way for medical practitioners and researchers to find the medical literature they need. The general public doesn’t need the level of technical detail found in those articles. So the National Library of Medicine has provided a number of enhancements.MedlinePlus drugs

The screen shots provide an overview of the kinds of information available and accessible to the public. There is too much information on specific topics to fit on a single screen shot, although none of the individual pages is very long.MedlinePlus videos

I am basing my description on Infectious Diseases. There is a general, non-technical introduction “above the fold” on the screen. Below that are an invitation to sign up for email updates and a directory of links:

  • Basics
    • Overviews
    • Prevention/Screening
  • Learn More
    • Specific Conditions
    • Related Issues
  • Multimedia & Cool Tools
    • [In this case, there are none]
  • Research
    • Clinical Trials
    • Research
    • Journal Articles
  • Reference Shelf
    • Organizations
    • Statistics
  • For You
    • Children

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Each page has the same basic six categories of links. I haven’t investigated other pages, but it appears that the links available under ” Multimedia & Cool Tools” and “For You” vary significantly from page to page. Links under the other headings are probably fairly consistent.

You can find reliable medical and health information in many places on the Web. You can probably not find anything that matches both the reliability and comprehensiveness of Medline Plus.
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Photo of Index Medicus comes from The State of Evidence Based Fitness, which includes an interesting personal recollection of using it in the “old days.”
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