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J Med Libr Assoc. Apr 2007; 95(2): 219–221.
PMCID: PMC1852626


Reviewed by Donna Timm, MLS, Head, User Education

9 Lake Bellevue Drive, Suite 106, Bellevue,WA 98005; 425.646.6030; fax, 425.650.9888. moc.ailaeh@ofni. http://www.healia.com; free Website; additional information on pricing for institutions, 425.646.6030 or. moc.ailaeh@vedzib


Healia is a search engine and gateway to quality health information that employs patent-pending algorithms for retrieving filtered, personalized, and accurate results. It was developed with consumers and patients in mind; however, health professionals, researchers, and librarians will find it useful as well.

General description and background

Healia's chief executive officer, Tom Eng, has spent most of his career developing health-related information technology and employing emerging technologies to improve health care, specifically in the field of public health, both in the United States and abroad. In 1999, Eng first envisioned a consumer health search engine that would deliver high-quality results, and, in 2001, he received a Small Business Innovation Research Award from the National Institutes of Health to develop it. The National Cancer Institute assisted with research and development, and Healia was incorporated in March of 2005.

It took Eng about six months to decide on a name for this search engine. Part of the name is “Heal,” from the word “health,” and the other part is derived from Helios, the god of the sun in Greek mythology who sees and knows all. Healia became available to the public in September of 2006.

Healia is a consumer health search engine that uses filtering algorithms to enhance the accuracy of results and the retrieval of personally relevant health information. Filtering options, together with the optimized search engine technology, create a powerful combination for producing targeted results.

The search engine is available to the public at no charge, but institutions can license the Healia technology specifically for use through their Websites or other Web-enabled applications. The licensed version of Healia is free of advertisements and customized to complement the “look and feel” of each institution's Website or application, including portals, interactive tools, and electronic medical records. Its priced is based on the number of users and the extent of customization. Healia currently licenses its technology to AARP and the US Department of Veterans Affairs.


Healia covers the full gamut of health information, indexing thousands of sites from sources such as MedlinePlus, ClinicalTrials.gov, and New York Online Access to Health (NOAH). Healia uses algorithms to calculate a “Quality Index Score” that looks at variables correlating health topics with quality content. Results are based on the relevancy of the content to the search terms and the quality of the content.

 The consumer can decide how to tailor the search results by using filters for age, gender, reading level, and so on. From the search results, Healia links the user to the full-text version of each resource.

Intended audience

Healia's main audience is consumers and patients; however, health professionals, librarians, and researchers can benefit from using this search engine as well. The product has a filter for “professionals” that targets the health professional or subject area expert and assumes a higher level of biomedical knowledge.

Major features

  • Basic search: A user who wishes to perform a basic keyword search can choose to turn off all filters, enter keywords into the text box, and press the Enter key. By default, Healia returns results that include all search terms entered, and the order of the search terms does affect the results. If the user enters an acronym such as “ert,” Healia will provide a list of expanded search terms. For example, the expanded terms for “ert” are: “estrogen replacement therapy,” “emergency response team,” and “environmental response team.”
  • Suggested search terms: Based on complex mapping and relationships of thousands of health-related terms, Healia displays similar, more general, and more specific search terms for each query entered. This feature is helpful to the user who may wish to add related terms or concepts to a search. Users can search for information on diseases or disorders, conditions, symptoms, drugs, procedures, and surgical operations.
  • Suggested search result: When the user enters a search term, a “suggested result” from a reference Website is displayed above the list of results. The suggested result usually defines a disease or condition in some detail.
  • Personal search: This feature is unique to the Healia search engine and presents the user with a number of filters for personalizing the search results. Filters are offered in the following categories for targeted results:
    •  Professionals: those with a higher level of biomedical knowledge
    •  Gender: males or females
    •  Age groups: children, teens, or senior citizens
    •  Ethnic groups: including those of African, Asian, or Hispanic heritage as well as Native Peoples
    •  Reading levels: basic (written at high school level or below) and advanced (written at college level or above)
    •  Accredited sites: either self-accredited by the Health on the Net Foundation (HONcode) or accredited by the URAC Health Web Site program
    •  Sites with specific attributes: such as easy to scan, fast to load, suitable for text browsers, and interactive tools available (calculators, quizzes, assessment tools)
  • Contextual filters: When searching for information about a disease, health condition, or drug, the following contextual filters are automatically generated, allowing the user to place additional limits on a search:
    •  Prevention: the prevention of a disease or health condition
    •  Causes/Risks: causes of or risk factors for a disease or health condition
    •  Symptoms: signs or symptoms of a disease or health condition
    •  Diagnosis/Tests: diagnosis of or tests for a disease or health condition.
    •  Treatment: treatment options for a disease or health condition.
    •  Dosage: drug dosage information
    •  Uses: uses or indications of a drug.
    •  Side Effects: possible adverse reactions to a drug
    It is important to note that these additional search filters are displayed only when searching for information on a disease, condition, or a drug. These search filter tabs are not available when searching for information on a pathogen, procedure, or surgical operation.
  • Search history: Healia records the user's last ten searches, but this information is erased when the browser is closed. The search history includes not only terms typed into the query box but also any “suggested search terms” the user selects.
  • Font size: The user has the option of viewing the results in a different font size by selecting the Font Size icon at the top of the screen. Choices are normal, large, and extra large fonts.

Accessibility and usability

Healia has been successfully tested with screen readers for the benefit of the blind, according to Eng.

In addition, the usability of the Healia search engine has been tested by focus groups consisting of librarians, consumers, and health professionals. For example, the focus groups suggested that the product should have an extensive “Help” page that explaines the various filters instead of “pop-up” text boxes that provide definitions upon selection of the filters.

Whenever a user executes a search, the results page displays a “Feedback” tab at the top of the screen. Healia staff would like to receive comments from users who experience any difficulties navigating the site or retrieving information.


A notable advantage of this search engine is that the user has the ability to limit a search in various ways, producing personalized, targeted results. In addition, it is helpful that the user can turn off the filters to perform a basic search when desired.

The search results link the user to reputable sources of health information and to the full text. Healia is, therefore, successful at connecting the consumer to reliable health information at the point of need in a useful format.


For those accustomed to using PubMed's search history feature, it may be disconcerting to see that Healia's search history is erased each time the browser is closed. At present, there is no option for retaining that search history due to privacy concerns, according to Eng. If Healia could enable the user to save searches to a clipboard or a folder, that would be a major improvement.

It may be confusing to consumers to see contextual filters appear when searching for informationon diseases, conditions, or drugs; yet, those filters disappear when searching for information on pathogens, procedures, or surgical operations. Offering context-sensitive filters when searching for articles on pathogens, procedures, or surgical operations would be an improvement.

Healia does link the user to some Websites managed by pharmaceutical companies, so it would be helpful to have a filter allowing the user to remove these from the results, if desired. The influence of pharmaceutical companies has received attention in the press recently due to relationships among the drug companies, practicing physicians, and medical educators that could adversely affect patient care [1, 2]. There is also a concern that some drug company Websites emphasize the benefits of their medications without frequently updating information on the adverse effects of those medications [3].

Technological administration

If users have Internet service, they should not have technological problems in terms of gaining full access to Healia. The only requirements are Internet access and a standard Web browser; no software installation is required. Institutions will need to include a line of code on their Websites to provide access to Healia. No further support is needed, because all updates and maintenance for the search engine are handled by Healia's staff.


Healia is updated on a daily basis, using a proprietary, patent-pending algorithm to crawl the Web and evaluate quality health-related content.

Similar products

According to Eng, two of the major competitors are Google and Healthline. Google has librarians add content to its health section, but Healia takes a different approach by having a proprietary algorithm do the work. A detailed comparison of these very different approaches is beyond the scope of this review.

Healthline, a consumer health search engine that delivers quality results, is comparable to Healia in some ways but does not offer the numerous filtering options for more personalized results. Healthline has HealthMaps that enable the user to visually explore relevant resources and information about health topics, and this is a nice feature. Nevertheless, for the user who wants to exercise more control in terms of personalizing the search results, Healia is the better choice.

Future plans

Healia's main goal for the future is to continue to use cutting-edge technology to produce quality search results. Specific enhancements planned are: (1) allowing the user to limit search results to resources included in PubMed and (2) implementing a “discovery engine” to make it possible for the user to explore relationships between search terms and other health concepts.


The most notable features of Healia are:

  • a patent-pending algorithm to ensure quality results
  • contextual filters and semantic technology to suggest alternative search terms
  • filters and algorithms for personalizing the search results
  • integration of Healia's search engine into other Web applications such as portals, interactive tools, and electronic medical records

Eng and Healia's staff are continually working to improve the search engine, so they would welcome feedback from librarians. Comments can be sent to moc.ailaeh@ofni.


  • Pollack A. Stanford to ban drug makers' gifts to doctors, even pens. New York Times. 2006.  Sep; 12:C2. [PubMed]
  • Minnigan H, Chisholm CD. Conflict of interest in the physician interface with the biomedical industry. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2006.  Aug; 24(3):671–85. [PubMed]
  • Gillman K. Disease mongering: one of the hidden consequences. PLoS Med. 2006.  Jul; 3(7):e316. [PMC free article] [PubMed]

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