An Evaluative Comparison of Two Consumer Health
Search Engines: Healia and Medstory
Dr. Sergio Chaparro-UnivazoLIS 454: Digital Information Services & ProvidersGraduate School of Library & Information ScienceSimmons College – Boston, MA An Evaluative Comparison of Two Consumer Health
Search Engines: Healia and Medstory
The amount of health information available on the Web has dramatically increased in recent years. While this trend has helped to empower consumers of health care services and products, it also poses them with the challenge of locating and identify- ing authoritative and reliable information. This paper briefly compares and evaluates Healia and Medstory two specialized search engines designed to address this need.
Database Characteristics
Neither Healia nor Medstory states information regarding the size of the databases used by their respective search engines. Despite this, one can infer which of the two has the larger database in relative terms by comparing the number of results returned on for the same search performed in each search engine. It is important not to draw overly strong conclusions from this type of test, however, since the results will also vary based on how each search engine indexes documents, what sources of informa- tion are included or excluded, and other such factors. As shown in Table 1, the re- sults returned for several searches indicate that Medstory uses a significantly larger database than Healia. Bigger is not alway better, however, and in this case it may be that Healia’s more selective inclusion criteria provide the searcher with a higher ra- tio of useful, reliable, and authoritative results. Indeed, the results returned for many searches of Medstory’s database reveal a fairly high percentage of included sites with- PARKER – Two Consumer Health Search Engines: Healia and Medstory Table 1: Comparison of the number of results returned for several selected searches
Search Term
lipitor advertisement jarvik “body double” Currency of Content
Both Healia and Medstory appear to update their databases frequently, and are capable of returning results for current news stories from MedlinePlus, the National Library of Medicine’s consumer health site. Because of the broader scope of materials indexed in Medstory’s database (including news from the commercial site WebMD and stories carried through partnerships with outlets such as the Wall Street Journal), it is far more likely than Healia to return results related to very One of the features offered by Healia is a simplified PubMed search interface. Since access to this content is specifically emphasized, it is very puzzling that the most recent documents available through Healia’s PubMed search are at least three months old.
Medstory offers a filter for searching PubMed abstracts, which similarly fails to return content less than two to three months old, although it is sometimes possible to return current PubMed material in Medstory’s with its regular search results.
Types of Documents Included
In addition to standard HTML documents, both Healia and Medstory index in full text and return documents in a number of other formats. These include plain text files (.txt), Microsoft Office documents (.doc, .xls, and .ppt), and Rich Text Files (.rtf), and image files (.jpg, .gif, .png, etc.). Neither Healia nor Medstory are particularly well- suited for finding specific file formats, however, since neither allow the user to limit or filter the results of a search by document type.
PARKER – Two Consumer Health Search Engines: Healia and Medstory Search Capabilities
The most notable and innovative aspects of both Healia and Medstory are the in- terface features they employ to help users design and refine their searches. The options offered by each highlight separate concerns and encourage different ways of approach- Healia: Features, Filters, and Optional Limits
Healia’s front page is relatively clean and uncluttered. The primary feature on the page is a single search box, accompanied by a few featured links. Users can select whether they wish to search Healia’s web database (the default option), PubMed/MEDLINE, or Aside from the option to search general web content or these spe- cialized databases, there are no optional limits or advanced features available from On the results page, however, Healia offers a number of interesting and useful fea- tures designed to help a user narrow their search and find the information best suited to their need. These take the form of filters that can be applied to the set of results, based upon Healia’s prior analysis and identification of attributes of the sites in its On the left side of the page, the filters offered allow the user to select for materi- als focused on their particular demographic characteristics (sex, age, and ethnicity), the reading level desired, the presence of statements of compliance with the voluntary Health on the Net Code (HONcode) or accreditation by the Utilization Review Accred- itation Commission (URAC), or for technical features such as whether the site can be easily scanned by a screen reader or viewed by a basic, text-only browser.
A second set of filters is offered in the form of tabs immediately above the list of results. These may vary on the basis of the search term. For example, a search for “heart disease” yields filtering tabs suited for a health condition, like Prevention, Causes/Risks, Symptoms, Diagnosis/Tests, and Treatment, while a search for “lipitor” results in filters appropriate for a pharmaceutical product, such as for Dosage, Uses, PARKER – Two Consumer Health Search Engines: Healia and Medstory Other useful features offered from the results page include suggested alternative searches, broader or narrower search terms, relevant news items from a limited set of sources, and a “Suggested Result,” very often taken from Wikipedia or MedlinePlus.
Medstory: Features, Filters, and Optional Limits
Like Healia, Medstory offers a simple search page dominated by a single search box and without any immediate option for using an advanced search or applying limits of any kind. On the results page, Medstory offers a wide and varied range of options for filtering results returned and for refining the initial search.
The first option on the Medstory results page is the choice between a tab labeled “health” (default) and one labeled “research.” The selection chosen not only has an effect on the results displayed, but also on the limiting and search refinement options subsequently offered. The “research” option seems geared toward professionals, offer- ing results with a high proportion of journal abstracts, refinement options related to specific genes, and so on, while the results offered under the “health” tab tend to be better suited for patients and consumer health needs.
To refine one’s search, Medstory offers options for modifying the search under cat- egory headings that vary on the basis of the subject of the original search term. For example, a search for “heart disease” yields suggested refinements under the cate- gories Drugs & Substances, Conditions, Procedures, In Clinical Studies, Complemen- tary Medicine, Personal Health, and People. If one clicks on the suggested refinement option “Aspirin,” listed under the heading Drugs & Substances, Medstory provides a pop-up box with basic details about the drug (name and common brand names), sug- gested searches (heart disease AND Aspirin, JUST Aspirin, and Aspirin side effects. As the searcher adds AND terms to the search, Medstory conveniently tracks these added terms using check boxes below the main search box. These boxes may be individually unchecked should the user wish to remove a term from the search.
Finally, Medstory also offers some basic filtering options. While the default set of re- sults returned is for web content in general, the user may choose to filter for News Me- dia, Audio/Video, Clinical Trials (, and Research Articles (PubMed).
PARKER – Two Consumer Health Search Engines: Healia and Medstory Conclusions
Both Healia and Medstory are exploring interesting opportunities for creating a consumer health search engine. In both cases, the primary features apparent to the user are concerned with applying filters to enhance a basic search. The filters offered by each search engines cover some of the same concerns (treatment, prevention, journal literature, clinical trials, etc), but Healia also offers the unique possibilities of limiting the search to information applicable to the searcher’s demographic attributes and from websites claiming to have the approval of organizations that monitor the quality of Overall, the functioning of Medstory’s filters, the larger size of its database, and its full use of Boolean operators (Healia inserts an automatic AND between all terms) lead me to slightly prefer it to Healia. Nevertheless, where Healia addresses itself to concerns not taken into account by Medstory, such as attempting to control for the re- liability of health information by limiting the sites in its database and allowing one to limit results to sites claiming approval by an oversight organization, it explores impor- tant territory for a search engine dedicated to providing quality health information.
Both of these search engines are currently in beta. Both point to promising possibil- ities, and each deserves to undergo further refinement. Some of the greatest strengths for each nicely complement the weaker points of the other, and I hope that further development will refine both Healia and Medstory into truly useful tools for those seeking consumer health information.


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