Net advantage

If another year has passed you by without you having explored the Internet, then
add it to your list of resolutions now. Here we present a beginner’s guide. By

XpertHR resources


Heather Falconer

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing in healthcare. But according to a recent
article in the British Medical Journal ( the vast oceans of
it available on the Internet are set to have a profound effect on the way
patients and healthcare providers interact.

The Internet will “foster a new level of knowledge among patients, enable them
to have input into making decisions about their healthcare, and allow them to
participate in active partnerships with many groups of decision makers,”
says Alejandro R Jadad of the health information research unit at McMaster University
in Hamilton, Ontario.

Jadad also points out, however, that one of the key challenges in bringing about this
revolution is to improve the ease, affordability and availability of access to
the Internet for both consumers and clinicians “in all settings where
their interactions occur”.

leads to the inescapable conclusion that this year occupational health
professionals can no longer put off that job of getting to grips with the
worldwide web. To make the prospect less daunting, Occupational Health has put
together a beginner’s guide to the technology and some of the resources it


companies are now without some form of Internet access, though it might be
restricted by an explicit “Internet policy” to prevent abuse. The software
one uses to access information on the worldwide web is called a browser and the
chances are you will have one of two installed on your PC or Apple Mac:
Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator currently account for 97 per
cent of all use. PCs running Windows 95 or 98 will almost certainly have
Internet Explorer ready installed, the most recent version being 5.0.

There are other smaller browsers such as Lynx, Neoplanet, Opera and Surf Monkey for
PCs, and ICab and Hotjava for Macs. These offer some interesting facilities:
Surf Monkey, for instance, lets you “blow up” web pages while Lynx
offers a text-only facility to cut the time taken to “download” or
transfer information from the Net onto your machine.

browsers are straightforward to use: if you have a particular web site in mind,
you simply type the address in the box provided, then click “Go” or
press the “Return” key. The first page to appear is what is known as
the site’s “Home Page” which contains links to other pages. Hence the
term “web”. A “Home” button on the toolbar allows you to go
back to the original page you viewed from wherever you are in the web.

facilities include the “Back” button which takes you to the last page
you looked at, and “Stop”, which you can hit if you decide you do not
want to view the page that is loading.

browser also lets you save the addresses of sites you may want to visit again,
so that you don’t need to type them in every time. In Internet Explorer you use
the “Favourites” option, while in Netscape it is
“Bookmarks”. You can also use Favourites to store a page or an entire
site on your computer so you can revisit it regularly without having to go
on-line. You can even ask the browser to revisit the site automatically from
time to time to download fresh versions so you are always up to date.

you do not know the name of the site you want to visit, and just want
information on a particular topic, there are many different “search
engines” which will help you to find what you want.


to market researcher Media Metrix, the most popular of these is Yahoo, visited
by 53.9 per cent of work-based web users. Behind Yahoo comes MSN, Netscape,
Go/Infoseek, Lycos, Excite, AltaVista and many more. But this is a fast-moving
marketplace with new services being created all the time.

speaking, not all the brands named above are genuine search engines. Some, such
as Yahoo, are directories compiled from short descriptions of entire web sites.
True search engines, such as the up and coming HotBot, carry out an automated
search using a virtual “spider” or “crawler” which visits
millions of web sites and follows all the links. Anything it finds goes into a
giant index which is then sifted using search engine software. The main advantages
of a search engine is that the search will cover a wider area and will look at
individual pages, and the spider will go back over the web sites every so often
to look for changes making for more up to date matches.

search facilities also vary in terms of user-friendliness and the breadth and
depth of search they allow. AltaVista, for example, has a wide range of
“power searching” commands making it a favourite among professional
researchers and academics, while AskJeeves is more basic.

offer a range of options such as “Related Search”, which invites you
to click on terms related to your original query; “stemming” which
searches for variations on the words you typed in based on their stem; a date
range to restrict the search; real names links; and advanced search pages to
guide you in more complex queries.

best way to find one that suits you is to try a few out. You can also get lots
of useful information and tips for all levels of search from beginners’ to
advanced from
 which can be accessed via


Jadad admits, “We are far from achieving information nirvana”. He
recognises that the information on the Internet is of variable quality and that
coding systems are still primitive. To help users cope with the overload he
suggests more intelligent retrieval systems; more predigested or distilled
summaries of health information; more “engaging” messages and more
links to other clinical computing applications such as electronic medical
records. He also proposes “effective strategies to help us integrate
information with values and circumstances in ways that prevent an overemphasis
on any one element”. A tall order.

the meantime, there is a huge array of web sites devoted to health and medicine
from the BMJ site to,
which invites you to place your thumb on the screen for your DNA to be
“probed to identify negative genes”. The site also offers a price
list of “genetic correction treatments”.

to The Net magazine – which offers lots of help and advice for web surfers at – the BMJ site is an excellent launching pad for health
research with a “first-rate search facility” and a useful resources

are several other important database sites (see box).

for the many more obscure sites available, The Net offers a couple of caveats.
First, the provenance of the information is important: many sites, for
instance, are US designed and oriented, which could affect the usefulness of
health information to the UK user.

is also worth checking how current the information is; many sites have a
“last updated” note which will give you an idea of the regularity
with which the website is refreshed.

can you contact the source of the information?

request for feedback is a good sign,” it says, “unless it is to get
hold of your e-mail address to sell you something, of course.”

database sites


which dates back to 1966 and covers medical, nursing and healthcare information

Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature which gives access to
a large number of English language nursing and allied health journals

British Nursing Index which indexes articles from the most popular nursing
journals in the UK



sites include NHS Direct at
 and the BMA at, which also has a number of
health-related web site links.

advice and information can be obtained from interest group sites including, the official site of BackCare – formerly the National Back
Pain Association – the British Heart Foundation’s, the British
Pregnancy Advisory Service site at,
and Weight Watchers’,
which has a chat forum as well as information on the famous points diet.

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