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Self-Diagnosing Sickness With the Web

The health-care debate entered a "new phase" this morning, as news leaked that President Obama was re-tooling his plans for reform. But while pundits wait for him to make a major health-care speech next week, millions of Americans are turning to the Web to self-diagnose aches and pains.

Web sites such as WebMD and Discovery Health have long served this audience—inundating them ads in the process. Luckily, those of us that can't make it to a doctor (or can't afford to) now have another option. It's called HealthBase, and it was launched this morning by a semantic Web company called NetBase. The concept of "semantic Web" is a truly amazing evolution of the Web as we know it now: It allows your computer to "read" Web sites and know their content, instead of blindly presenting you with data it can't understand. That means smarter searching and more relevant content. Here's how it works.

When you search a condition, treatment or drug on HealthBase, it performs a semantic search of all the other health-related sites on the Web. That means it doesn't just look at the titles of the articles and spit back a result, it reads into the actual text to deliver you really useful content. (If this sounds like a technology that would have great implications for your business, you're right; check out Oracle's semantic databases. It has also done wonderful things for social networking, people-search engines, and other services.) Thankfully, the brilliance of the backend of this site comes without any of the 90s-Web-portal sensory overload of other sites; it's simple, easy to navigate and transparent. When you navigate to HealthBase, you're met with just a search box, and four simple tabs.


Doing a search for "neck pain" led me to a plethora of confusing links and materials on WebMD. It's hard to tell what's advertising and what is content; even if you can parse the two, there are still an overwhelming number of options.

But searching HealthBase got me this: An actual, navigable list of drugs, treatments, causes and complications.


The HealthBase database drills into over 10 million health documents: PubWed, Web MD, Yahoo Health, eMedicine and a litany of others, so the actual results you're getting—the content of the articles—isn't any different than what you'd find on those sites. But the improvement here is actually being able to find those documents amid a morass of ads, animations and other garbage. That said, HealthBase is ultimately only as good as the sites it searches; the inclusion of Wikipedia on the list is an indication that you should read everything you find with a certain degree of skepticism.

To see HealthBase in action, check out the video below.