HHS site reaches out to new audience

With the expected growth of the Hispanic American community and the increasing popularity of alternative medicine, the Department of Health and Human Services recently added two features to its World Wide Web site to serve a broader and more ethnically diverse population.

Since 1997, more than 4.5 million health-conscious consumers have accessed the site, at www.healthfinder.gov, as a first stop for reliable health information compiled by HHS. The site, which covers more than 1,000 health-related topics, provides links to carefully selected information from government agencies, major non-profit and private health departments, and universities.

A new page about alternative medicine builds on that success by providing information about a variety of therapies that fall outside mainstream medicine. And a new Espanol feature opens up Health-finder to a new audience by providing information in Spanish.

HHS added the features because of legitimate demand and the need for credible alternative health care resources, said Mary Jo Deering, director of health communication and telehealth at HHS.

On the Healthfinder home page, a blue search bar provides quick and easy searches on various topics. Users can enter a specific word or browse a list of topics arranged alphabetically.

Otherwise, the site provides six main sections: Hot Topics, which includes information on subjects such as AIDS and food safety; News, which includes government health news and online news sources; Smart Choices, which includes information on such topics as preventive medicine and online health information; Other Tools, which includes research tools; Just for You, which provides information tailored to specific groups, such as teens and health professionals; and About Us, which includes information about the Healthfinder project.

The alternative medicine Web page, listed under Hot Topics, provides users with information on an array of common treatments that fall outside mainstream medicine, such as acupuncture and aromatherapy, as well as a discussion of alternative medicine treatments for specific conditions, such as AIDS and cancer. The Alt Med section also provides links to other sites from health care associations, agencies and non-profit organizations to help users research particular issues.

"Alternative medicine is one of the most popular topics and should not be equated with quackery," Deering said. "Many people go to the alternative medicine if they have a chronic disease or [have been] newly diagnosed with a very serious disease. In both instances, when people learn that traditional medicine can't help, they cast a net as wide as they can."

Deering said a professional medical journal conducted a study in 1998 about the number of people traveling overseas to visit foreign doctors who practiced alternative medicine. The article provided some proof that in many cases people preferred alternative medicine over conventional procedures, she said. Because of the high amount of interest, HHS decided to include alternative medicine on its Web site.

"As more research is completed, there will be more [alternative medicine] therapies provided" on the HHS Web site, Deering said.

Bilingual Approach

HHS has felt a similar push to provide Spanish translations, which can be found under Just for You. "We certainly know that the Spanish-speaking people are the fastest-growing American population, and they are going online," Deering said.

Next year, more than 40 million Hispanic Americans are expected to use the Internet as a source for information - 10 times more than last year - and HHS wants to have the electronic resources available to serve that growth, she said.

Hispanic Americans can point-and-click their mouse on Espanol, and another page will appear with health information written in Spanish.The site provides tips and Spanish-language resources that include information on cancer and heart disease as well as recommended publications for further research.

In addition, there are links to the most current health media online, tools to understand and manage health care concerns, catalog lists, Social Security benefits information and general health information.

"We have had responses from colleagues and public librarians who say that [the Spanish feature] is a welcome addition because the federal government puts up credible information," Deering said.

The department makes changes to the Web site frequently, she said. For example, in June HHS will debut a special feature on its Web site for men in celebration of Father's Day. The feature will provide information on health issues and concerns that pertain to men, Deering said.

"We want people to have certain links that they can trust," she said.

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