Health information search engines emerge, according to expert at 11th World Congress on Internet in Medicine

Toronto 18 October 2006Consumer demand for more personalized health information will dramatically escalate for the foreseeable future because responsibility for all aspects of health decision-making is being shifted to consumers. One reason is that employers, facing unsustainable health care costs, are continuing to push wellness programmes and consumer-directed health plans that require employees to make more decisions about what, when, and where services should be accessed.


In addition, the percentage of people 65 years old and above will grow from 12,4 percent to 20 percent of the United States population by 2030 (DHHS, 2005). This demographic trend will result in dramatically more people with chronic health conditions. Coupled with these other trends is a growing demand by consumers for information tools that can help them make sense of the huge volume of information resulting from new biomedical research.

Increasingly consumers find themselves in need of search engines that address the unique complexities of health information search and that can provide more reliable and personalized search results. Recently, several health-vertical search engines, including Healia, have launched in attempt to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the health search process.

Health-optimized search engines have several advantages over general search engines. These include the ability to provide tailored experiences for health searches and more focused, more reliable, and more personally relevant results.

Speaking at the 11th World Congress on Internet in Medicine in Toronto, Canada on October 18, 2006, Dr. Tom Eng, an international expert in eHealth and Chairman and Founder of the new health search engine Healia, described how consumers' approach to finding health information on-line has fundamentally changed in the last several years.

"During the 1990s, consumers typically went to a favourite destination health portal to look up health information. But when search engines such as Google became more effective in finding information on the Web, consumers began to default to general search engines as their gateway to health information", stated Dr. Tom Eng.

Recent studies have confirmed consumers' increasing reliance on search engines to find health information. According to Pew Internet, approximately 81 percent of consumers looking for on-line health resources use a search engine first to find health information (Pew, 2002).

Additionally, 18 percent of on-line consumers rely significantly more on search engines to find health information now than they did one year ago, and 46 percent of on-line consumers search for health information at least once a month (Jupiter Research, 2006). However, the same report showed that only 16 percent of on-line consumers searching for health information found what they were looking for.

Although general search engines perform satisfactorily for generic searches, they may not do well for health queries. Because of their focus on breadth rather than on content quality, general search engines usually provide an overwhelming number of generic "hits" that are often of questionable validity. This is particularly true for searches on health topics such as alternative medicine, herbal and nutritional supplements, prescription drugs, disease cures, and nutrition. In fact, according to 2002 report from the Journal of the American Medical Association, 70 percent of scientific studies show that quality of on-line health information is a major problem (JAMA, 2002).

Dr. Eng summed up by saying: "By 2015, health care spending in the United States is projected to reach $4 trillion and 20 percent of GDP (CMS, 2006). Providing people with a next-generation search engine that can intelligently guide them to trusted and personally relevant Web resources will help consumers make more informed health decisions and live healthier lives."


  • Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). National Health Care Expenditures Projections: 2005-2015. 2006.
  • Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Administration on Aging. Statistics on the Aging Population. 2005.
  • JAMA. Empirical Studies Assessing the Quality of Health Information for Consumers on the World Wide Web. Eysenbach et al. 2002.
  • Jupiter Research. Health Search: Assessing Consumers' Demand for Health Vertical Search Engines. June 27, 2006.
  • Pew Internet. Search Engines: A Pew Internet Project Data Memo. July 3, 2002.

Leslie Versweyveld

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