HHS Weaves Healthy Web

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Vice President Al Gore and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala yesterday unveiled a Web site that links dozens of federal health services into one searchable catalog they say will help consumers find health information faster and more easily than ever before.

The new Web site, called Healthfinder (www.healthfinder.gov), is the second federal online service that allows people to visit one Web site to find information on a topic for which they would previously have had to contact dozens of agencies. It is based on the model used by the U.S. Business Advisor (www.business.gov), a one-stop electronic government resource for business owners. Healthfinder links to information from more than a dozen HHS offices and a dozen other agencies, creating a single gateway to health resources administered by the federal government.

Vice President Gore, in a videotaped address to a health information conference held at Georgetown University this week, said "Healthfinder will provide the public with easier access to more quality federal consumer health information than is available now from any single source on the World Wide Web."

Healthfinder is a gateway Web site, which means no original health information is kept there. Instead, Healthfinder is an index of links to documents, libraries, agency information, and on-line discussion groups housed on other sites.

David Baker, a senior analyst at the HHS's Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and Healthfinder's designer, demonstrated how a search on a health topic like breast cancer using one of the large Internet search engines like AltaVista or Yahoo! returns over 40,000 related links. Healthfinder allows people to conduct controlled searches of health information that prevent them from being deluged with information that may only be somewhat related to their topic of interest.

"We already have gigabytes of health information out there, in the uncharted realms of cyberspace or, as some have described it, 'cyber clutter,'" Shalala said. "We need to say goodbye to the days when surfing the Internet for health information often meant navigating waves of confusing information from a swell of unreliable sources. It's time to give the people of this country a smoother ride."

Healthfinder gives users three options to conduct a search. First, a user can select a letter of the alphabet and then choose a topic under that letter. The search can be narrowed by selecting a population group--women, minorities or children, for example--or by choosing to search for organizations' contact information only or for all Web resources.

The second search option is a list of toll-free numbers and information clearinghouses that users can browse to find the topic they're looking for.

Third, users are given a list of popular topics to choose from, ranging from AIDS to cancer to smoking.

"Since the day I arrived at our department, I made it clear that the era of public health brochures is over," Shalala said. "I knew that to keep up with today's fast-paced, global information technology, we had to improve our ability to reach people in the right way, at the right time, with just the right health information. And I knew the Internet and the World Wide Web, and other exciting gateways, could help us do exactly that."

Healthfinder links to more than 200 federal Web sites, 350 state, local, non-profit, and university sites, and nearly 500 health documents.

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