In my non-librarian alter-ego, I teach women’s/gender studies at a college. The class of my heart (don’t most teachers have these – the one or two courses they just love the most?) is a women’s health course. I love it for multiple reasons. I find it fascinating to explore the intersection between two concepts – “women” and “health” – that both have strong roots both in biology and social construction. I love that everyone finds something personally relevant in the material we cover. I love that the material is always evolving and the class content will never be exactly the same twice. And I love that, even if some students don’t master all the feminist theory we cover, all students can still leave the class with an enhanced ability to understand health information and navigate health systems.
I was recently talking with one student about as assignment she’s working on. She is very interested in learning more about abortion in Canada, and the health issues surrounding abortion. Like many people, she has been exposed to a lot of propaganda/myths about alleged negative health impacts of abortions. Part of my job as her teacher (strikingly similar to my job in my other role as a a librarian) is to help her develop the ability to navigate all the information (and misinformation) out there on such a topic, in order to assess what is reliable and “true” to the best of our scientific knowledge, and to use her critical analytical skills to try to figure out what is going on when there is such apparent disagreement about the scientific “truth.”
One suggestion I have made to her, of course, is to always be aware of the source – and funding – of the information you are reading. That, in the case of, for example, the alleged link between breast cancer and abortion, political abortion websites (pro or anti choice) are not as good a choice for unbiased information as a reliable cancer information website would be. Thus for accurate and current consumer information on whether there is a link between breast cancer and abortion, one would have better results going to, say, the Canadian Cancer Society or the US National Cancer Institute, than following “Dr. Google” to the atrociously misleading and inaccurate top hit of “The Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer.” (the search was [“breast cancer” abortion])
I also talked with her about the challenges of looking at medical research as someone who is not an expert or even a health professional of any sort. Sometimes students will find A study on a topic and take its findings for truth, not fully understanding that one individual study is not usually as reliable as a set of studies, that small studies are usually less useful than very large ones, and not having the skills to critically assess the methods used in the study.
So where should she go for such information, particularly if she’s not someone who has the familiarity with the topic to know that there even *is* a Canadian Cancer Society? Good question.
In the past, my first answer for her would have been simple: try the Canadian Health Network. And this would have been a good answer, as a search there for [“breast cancer” abortion] gives one result:
- Abortion and breast cancer
Provides the Canadian Cancer Society’s perspective on rumours that suggest having an abortion or miscarriage will increase the risk of breast cancer.
Source: Canadian Cancer Society (CCS)
Amazing! That link is exactly what I first thought of to recommend. Or not so amazing, as that link was put there by some health librarian or similar, who has the same values I do of promoting clear, easy access to accurate, impartial consumer health information.
However, the CHN homepage now has a “Thank You” notice on it:
A notice to Canadian Health Network users
The Canadian Health Network would like to thank its visitors for using this Web site as a health information resource since 1999.
Beginning April 1, 2008, Canadians will be able to access timely, trusted and credible public health information through a single source – the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Web site at www.publichealth.gc.ca. Accessed by over 10 million visitors a year, we invite you to bookmark this Web site as a valuable and unique source for information on healthy living, disease and injury prevention.
Since my class is possibly the only consumer health training my students will ever have, and the CHN is still slated to go *poof* in three weeks, I didn’t recommend it to my student who was researching breast cancer and abortion, even though it would be an ideal starting point for any similar searches she wanted to do in the future.
Seeing as the CHN website refers users to PHAC, the Public Health Agency of Canada, as a replacement resource, I decided to head over there and try the same search on the PHAC site. Rather than a link to one resource to answer the question, we got ten hits, beginning with:
unopposed estrogen Breast cancer Uterine cancer Ovarian Endometrial cancerSarcoma Early age at menarche or irregular menses ?*36 ? *187, 128, 183, 63, 140 URL:http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/cyac-cjac06/pdf/cyac-cjac-2006_e.pdf
Modified: 2006-09-12 | Size:1456.4K |Language:English
and continuing down a list of references that are, for the most part, equally unintelligible to the average consumer health information seeker. None of the ten citations listed look promising for answering our question.
This is where I started to get angry.
It’s one thing to take away a really great consumer health resource.
It’s another to take it away and leave a pointer referring people to an other resource that is virtually useless for the same type of information seeking!
Okay, I thought. I’ll try Health Canada, then. They do everything; they must have the info there. Well, as we all know, having everything is not what makes a useful library for most regular patrons. Looking for info on abortion and breast cancer at Health Canada is like looking for Harriet the Spy at the Library of Congress by only using a keyword search in the catalogue. There have got to be a lot of books about adolescent girls and journals out there, ya know? Similarly, at Health Canada, our [“breast cancer” abortion] search returns us 76 pages of results, several of which have the same ambiguous title/description:
1. Canada-U.S.A. Women’s Health Forum Commissioned Papers
Canada-U.S.A. Women’s Health Forum Commissioned Papers…
This is not what my student needs.
Just for kicks, I hop across the virtual border and conduct the same search in MedlinePlus. Here, I got 32 hits, with the top one being:
… Can Having an Abortion Cause or Contribute to Breast Cancer? Abortion and breast cancer are both topics that can an Abortion Cause or Contribute to Breast Cancer? Abortion and breast cancer are both topics that can bring out strong&# … http://www.cancer.org/…abortion_cause_or_contribute_to_breast_cancer.asp?sitearea=cri
This is the U.S.American version of what the CHN gave us from the Canadian Cancer Society. The results that followed were all reasonably closely related as well, being decent consumer health webpages about either breast cancer or abortion. For this topic, the U.S. and Canadian information is basically the same, so from an information standpoint there should be little qualitative difference (the Canadian Cancer Society might differ in opinion, though, now that they will no longer be getting the web traffic from CHN). However, for, say, breast cancer treatment, the U.S. information would definitely not be the same, or even equivalent to the Canadian, due to different drug approval systems and healthcare delivery systems.
So where does this leave my undergraduate researcher/young woman trying to find out some health info? Really, she has three main choices now, if she is savvy enough to question the verisimilitude of the abortion-breast cancer propaganda in the first place:
- Ask a professional (teacher, librarian, doctor…)
- Use non-Canadian sources (if US sources, often similar to Canadian info, but sometimes quite different)
- Give up: either be confused by the seeming garbledygook on Health Canada/PHAC, or accept the “facts” according to the top hits on an internet search.
I guess I still just don’t understand the idea behind closing the CHN. Is it merely to obfuscate, or is the intent to Americanize?
See previous posts on the CHN here, here and here.