In the first of a new monthly series, Dr Nigel Watson, Vice-Chairman of the GPC's IM&T subcommittee, presents a beginners' guide to surfing the internet

Whether we like it or not, the internet and electronic communication are going to become increasingly important aspects of our daily working life. The development of NHSnet means that even the most reluctant GPs will have to use electronic communications within the next 5 years and probably sooner.

The NHS Executive has set a target to deliver NHSnet to every GP's desktop by April 2002. Each GP will have a unique NHS email address and be able to access the internet, at no cost to the GP, from his/her consulting room 24 hours a day.

At the end of November 2000 it was estimated that just over 50% of GPs had access to NHSnet from their desktop computers.

Have you looked around any health-related websites yet? If you haven't, you are not alone – many GPs are either unwilling to find out how to make use of the internet, or are uncertain about it.

This article is aimed at those who have not yet mastered the internet. I have used the eGuidelines website as a simple example to help you find your way around a website. You will understand the example best if you find a computer to log on to the internet and follow the instructions.

The web

The web can be thought of as a large electronic library. The majority of web addresses start with www which stands for world wide web. The next part of the address is the name of the 'book' and will often be the same as or similar to the name of the organisation concerned. It is therefore possible to make a guess at the web address of a site you are looking for.

Many UK company internet addresses end in .co.uk, e.g. www.eguidelines.co.uk, and charity organisation addresses often end in .org.uk. Many international or USA company addresses end in .com.

NHSnet

The NHSnet is part of the internet. However, it can only be accessed from specific PCs, i.e. from a GP's desktop, and cannot be accessed via ordinary internet access from an individual's home.

The reason for restricting access to NHSnet is to ensure that the site is secure. This has been made possible by having what is called a 'firewall', which only allows accredited access.

Search engines

Searching the internet for any item of information requires the use of a search engine. Some commonly used search engines are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Commonly used search engines

General
AltaVista http://uk.altavista.com
Yahoo http://uk.yahoo.com
Medical
PubMed http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/PubMed
UK Health Centre http://www.healthcentre.org.uk/hc/staff/resources.htm

By entering any of these sites, you can search the internet simply and quickly. In seconds, millions of websites can be searched. The search can be restricted to UK websites or you can search the entire world wide web.

You can carry out a simple search by entering just one word in the search field, or you can perform more complex searches by entering a selection of words or a phrase.

Internet address

When you are 'signed in' or 'logged on' to the internet, the window you see is the 'browser'. A browser is the software program you use to move around the web and download and view web pages. The most commonly used browser is Microsoft Explorer; Netscape is the other major browser.

At the top of the page is an address bar. This contains the internet address (uniform resource locator or URL) of the web page being viewed.

Most sites are entered via their home page, which is the equivalent of an index page in a book. For example, Figure 1(below) shows the home page of the eGuidelines website (http://eguidelines.co.uk/eguidelines/index).

Figure 1: Home page of the eGuidelines website
eguidelines home page

When moving around a website, the internet address changes, e.g. from http://www.anysite.co.uk/index.htm to http://www.anysite.co.uk/content.htm.

The index.htm and content.htm can be thought of as pages in a book.

Hyperlinks

Once the home page has been entered, you navigate around the site by moving the arrow over text and/or pictures (by means of the mouse). When the arrow encounters an area (text or picture) that is electronically connected to another web page it changes to a hand (see Figure 1, above). This is a hyperlink. Hyperlinked text is often blue and underlined. Clicking on the hyperlink will take you straight to the appropriate web page without the need to type in the internet address.

Registration

Some sites, such as eGuidelines, have a registration page, which needs completing to allow the user access to restricted areas.

On entering eGuidelines for the first time, click on 'first time visitors click here to register'. This brings up a registration form. Complete the form, noting which fields are compulsory, and choose a username and password. (see Figure 2, below).

Figure 2: Lower half of the registration page of the eGuidelines website
eguidelines registration page

It is worth recording your user name and password as they can easily be forgotten. Remember that these may be case sensitive and need to be recorded exactly as on the registration form.

Now click on 'Go!' You are then ready to browse the rest of the site.

Search facility

Many websites have a search facility that is accessed by clicking on the search button.

A list of articles containing the word 'hypertension' will be displayed and can be viewed by clicking on the hyperlinked text.

Clicking on the 'Back' button at the top of the screen will allow you to view the previous page you had displayed.

Links

As well as having a search facility, many sites, including eGuidelines, have a links page accessed via the home page. These links are often very useful. The key to starting to 'surf the net' is to find a site with a good list of links to other sites to explore.

Downloading documents

Another useful facility on some sites is the ability to download the software that is required in order to view the site to best advantage, notably Macromedia Flash.

Also, many documents on the internet are available in portable document format (PDF). While these are easy to download and store, they can only be opened, and hence read and printed out, if you have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your PC.

Both pieces of software can be downloaded free from a number of websites, including eGuidelines.

Bookmarks

Occasionally you may find a website that has a wealth of information but be unable to locate it at a future date. It is worth exploring the 'Favorites' menu and choosing one of the options. A web page can be selected and saved as a 'bookmark' or 'favorite' for easy recall in the favorites section.

Recall is simple: log on to the internet, look in the favorites selection, and choose a website.

Conclusion

Do not be afraid of the internet; it has a wealth of useful information. Try visiting the websites shown in Table 2 for interest. Happy surfing!

Table 2: Some interesting medical websites

British Medical Journal http://www.bmj.com
The Lancet http://www.thelancet.com
The Cochrane Library http://www.update-software.com/
eGuidelines (Guidelines in Practice and Guidelines) http//www.eguidelines.co.uk
Sample of practice websites
Well Close Square Surgery, Berwick-upon-Tweed http://www.wcsquare.demon.co.uk
Drs Gallagher, Derrick and Martyr, Rugby http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/Derrick_JCA
Arnewood Practice, New Milton (the author's practice) http://www.arnewood-practice.freeserve.co.uk
Shay Lane Medical Centre, Altrincham http://www.shaylane.org

Guidelines in Practice, January 2001, Volume 4(1)
© 2001 MGP Ltd
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