Published: 31/01/2002, Volume II2, No. 5790 Page 30

The Patient's Internet Handbook By Robert Kiley and Elizabeth Graham

Publisher: Royal Society of Medicine Press. ISBN: 1853154989. 302 pages.£9.95.

The world is full of technologies I do not understand: internal combustion engines, cathode ray tubes, microwaves.Yet, like most people, I do not need instructions on how to drive home from the supermarket, switch on the television or zap a lamb pasanda.

Unfortunately, people who write about the internet seem to be stuck in a nerdish mindset that wants you to understand Boolean logic before you can consume the contents of the web.

Call me old-fashioned, but I am content just to know that search engines work, without understanding the nuts and bolts that stop the world wide web falling apart.Of course, there is more to it than that.Type 'cancer' into the search box and Alta Vista will suggest 11.3 million pages, varying in relevance and reliability.

And, as far too many writers about health and the internet never tire of claiming, health is the second most searched for subject after pornography (though writers on popular culture tend to believe second place goes to Harry Potter).

That is where books like this are supposed to come in: expert guides to sources of good advice, and warnings about the quacks who lurk in dark corners of the web with their slick sales patter and snake oil cure-alls.

The authors, both librarians at the Royal Society of Medicine, are well qualified to construct such a handbook.

Given their knowledge of the subject, and the work that has gone into compiling The Patient's Internet Handbook, they obviously have lots to offer anyone wanting online help on just about any medical condition you care to mention.

The book itself is in five sections.

After a pointless 50 or so pages on connecting to the internet and using search engines - that you might find almost anywhere - there is a solid chunk of useful material on medical databases and newsgroups, the NHS's web presence, drug information, evaluating health information, and so on.

For some unexplained reason, there is also a substantial chapter devoted to pregnancy and childbirth that some readers will find valuable.

But when you come to the entire second half of this book, you have to ask why the authors went into print in this way.

Section five, all 120 pages of it, leads us through an A to Z listing of medical conditions and the online resources devoted to them.All well and good, but given that this book is about using the internet to find health information, wouldn't it have been better to have produced a shorter, cheaper and less time-sensitive publication before pointing readers to the website at www. patient-handbook. co. uk?

As it is, the site runs rather well and offers updates to the printed pages, but publishing hundreds of links on paper, then excluding them from the website, seems rather futile.

While ploughing through the handbook, I began to wonder who would buy it.Libraries, certainly - though whether it will be used is another matter.But patients? Surely even those with the inclination and the resourcefulness to make sustained use of the internet for their health information would go online before they headed for a bookshop to buy their routemap.

Worthy though this publication is, I cannot help feeling that reading a book that lists websites is akin to watching an opera that gives tips about car maintenance.