Ask Dr. Internet

The wealth of information accessible online makes the Web one of today’s greatest resources. Yet the fact that anyone can post anything also makes it a scary place, especially when it comes to getting accurate information on something as personal as your health. Two sites affiliated with Penn—OncoLink and Simple Steps to Better Dental Health—are providing consumers with credible medical information that is both complete and easy to understand.

James Metz, editor-in-chief of OncoLink, said sites dispensing medical information are becoming increasingly important as doctors have less time to spend with patients. And while information from the sites should never replace a doctor’s visit, they can help patients better prepare for an appointment by supplying them with important questions to ask and round out any information already obtained from their physicians.

Accessing OncoLink, which presents cancer-related information, and Simple Steps, which provides oral health knowledge, is like tapping into the brains of Penn’s many medical experts. Wendy McGeehan, director of distributed learning in the Dental School, said faculty members at all levels, from the dean to junior faculty, contribute. “No one is too good to answer for the site,” she said.

Helpful sections like “Ask the Dentist” give patients a chance to ask questions not already answered on the site. McGeehan said queries are assigned to individual faculty members, who provide general responses and give recommendations that are based on research.

OncoLink Managing Editor Maggie Hampshire said its “Ask the Experts” section is a favorite among users, receiving approximately 200 questions per day. Named a “Forbes Favorite” Web site in the magazine’s “Best of the Web” print and online editions, the site receives between nine and 11 million hits per month, from across the nation and overseas.

At OncoLink, users can find descriptive overviews, with charts and pictures, of cancer treatments, side effects and the many different types of cancers. Metz said the information is written for all levels, from cancer experts to the naïve consumer. “We don’t divide the site out but let the user decide [which level is appropriate for them],” he said.

Likewise, Simple Steps, a collaboration with Aetna Insurance that derives content from the School of Dental Medicine, makes health education easy. Among the site’s unique features are animated demonstrations, like the one on how to brush and floss properly, and live chats with Penn dental experts, such as the one Dental School Dean Raymond Fonseca conducted on “The Wisdom on Wisdom Teeth.”

Innovations at OncoLink include a clinical trials matching service, which is designed to provide users the fastest and most accurate way to gain access to trials conducted at Penn.

Metz reported that 700 patients have already used this service. Another special feature found at OncoLink is the “Patient Art Gallery,” which gives insight to dozens of artists’ personal struggles with the disease. Hampshire said this personal aspect of dealing with cancer is often absent from corporate sites. OncoLink also sets itself apart from other oncology sites in that it includes data on pediatric and veterinary cancer.

Yet perhaps the best part of these sites is that they are free and available all the time, without an appointment.


Find OncoLink at oncolink.upenn.edu and Simple Steps to Better Dental Health at www.simplestepsdental.com.

Originally published on March 20, 2003