Hospital still going strong after 10 years
on the web
Every day Michael D’Alessandro looks
up from his desk at the University of Iowa Hospitals
and Clinics and finds inspiration from halfway
across the globe.
|Virtual Hospital’s Atlas of Human
It’s in a note that’s
taped to his wall. “I’m
a physician from Kyrgyztan,” it reads. “Our
town’s hospital has little new medical information.
Your site has helped me answer some questions. Thank
That site is the University of Iowa Virtual Hospital,
www.vh.org, an online health reference with more
than 18,000 pages of medical information. The digital
library covers everything from the common cold to
kidney transplants to cancer. Not only does it contain
technical material for physicians and other health
care providers, it also features basic information
tailored to patients and their families about a variety
of health conditions.
D’Alessandro, associate professor of radiology
in the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine,
is director of the site and also one of its founders.
Ten years ago, the Virtual Hospital made its debut
on the World Wide Web, becoming one of the first
250 sites to show up on the web. Since then, its
contents have expanded exponentially from its original
100 pages, and its 50 million visitors to date have
come from as far as Nigeria, India, and New Zealand.
What sets the Virtual Hospital apart from other
health web sites, D’Alessandro says, are its
authors: more than 300 University health care professionals—from
nurses to physicians, pharmacists to dentists.
“The entries on WebMD, for example, are anonymous,
but content on the Virtual Hospital is written by
talented UI faculty members who donate their time,” D’Alessandro
explains. “Each is an expert in his or her
field. Their name is on the content, and that gives
Site content, which is peer-reviewed internally,
is labeled for different target audiences—providers,
patients, or other constituents (including grade-school
teachers, medical students, and health reporters)—but
all is available to anyone with Internet access.
Information is then organized by topic, by specialty,
and by body location. The format varies from individual
articles to textbooks to audio clips, and each month
the site features “spotlight” topics
and an “Author of the Month.”
In addition to being the site’s director of
evaluation, Donna D’Alessandro, an associate
professor of pediatrics, reaches parents and children
alike with her numerous publications on the Virtual
Children’s Hospital (www.vh.org/pediatric),
a component of the Virtual Hospital that was added
in 1994. Her goal is to provide clear and concise
information to families.
“In the ‘Common Questions, Quick Answers’ series,
we take a problem or disease typical in childhood
and try to answer basic questions in a very succinct
way,” she explains. “For example, ‘What
is a nosebleed? What causes it? What is the treatment?
When should I see a doctor?’ I’m a mom,
too, and those are the types of questions I have
about my own children.”
Supplementing the contributions of active faculty
and staff are retired UI professors like Ronald Bergman.
Bergman has published a number of anatomy works,
including a project for which he photographed cross-sectional
cuts of a donated human body and catalogued every
visible body part.
“Our philosophy is driven by the idea that
learning is a process of apprenticeship,” Michael
D’Alessandro says. “Virtual Hospital
is free to use, it’s anonymous in that visitors
don’t have to log in, and there’s no
advertising. We are to health information what the
BBC is to news. We are the digital press to the health
The site, which began as a research project during
D’Alessandro’s residency at Iowa, started
out by publishing information on 50 common health
problems. Since then, staff members have continually
solicited and added material—often directed
by reader requests—and published entire textbooks.
“There has been a flurry of sites with encyclopedia-type
medical listings. Our material is more comprehensive,” says
Virtual Hospital manager Greg Johnson. “And
each month a million people show up at our electronic
To keep this door “open,” Johnson directs
a staff of three full-time web editors and one full-time
systems administrator. Operating the site is a bit
like running a publishing house, he says.
“We do a lot of rights management, since we
get so many requests for re-use, and also a bit of
policing for trademark violations,” he says,
noting that much time is spent editing and indexing
as well as finding new faculty authors. Although
staff members constantly update material, they review
content for currency at least every three years.
Although success in cyberspace can be difficult
to measure, D’Alessandro treasures the regular
feedback submitted to the Virtual Hospital—feedback
indicating that the web team is on the right path.
“I’m very proud of what we do, but we’re
not the only site and we’re not all-inclusive,” he
says. “The Virtual Hospital is built on love—the
faculty members’ love of what they do and their
desire to use it as a tool to teach what they know
to as many people as possible.
“The fact that millions of people have used
it is an abstract notion for me because I can’t
name one user. But reading comments, especially those
from developing nations, is very rewarding. I read
that quote on my wall every day.”
by Sara Epstein