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Lower Bucks Hospital physician works to keep medical website’s information accurate


As more and more people turn to the internet for medical information, the trustworthiness of health data found online has become increasingly important.

Dr. Melinda Ratini, a graduate of the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine’s (WVSOM) Class of 1984, helps one well-known online medical publisher – WebMD, a site more than 127 million unique users access each year — maintain reliable information.

As a medical reviewer, Ratini’s job is to make sure WebMD’s news and feature stories contain the most current data, that the information is complete and that the sources used to create the articles are credible and unbiased. Ratini, a family medicine physician and geriatrician who practices at Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol has worked with the Atlanta, Ga.-based website for nearly 12 years.

“I love what I do at the office, and I love what I do for WebMD,” Ratini said. “It takes a lot of education to make people understand that we work hard to make sure the site’s sources are credible. When I go to hospital meetings and medical society meetings, I’ll see physicians frowning and talking about ‘Dr. Google,’ because there’s so much bad information out there. Or patients will bring in something they found online, and I’ll think, ‘Look at the sources. You can’t believe this.’ So I take pride in bringing information to people that is accurate, understandable and that they can relate to.”

Ratini’s career is partially a result of her varied educational background. After pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology at Penn State, she earned a master’s degree in information science from Philadelphia’s Drexel University before attending WVSOM.

“It was at the start of the information explosion,” Ratini said. “In college I worked in the local library, and because of that, I realized there was so much knowledge out there that if you could access it, you could have the power to do most anything. That piqued my interest in information science. But I missed interacting with people, so I decided to go to medical school.”

It was at WVSOM that Ratini, whose maiden name is Murray, met fellow Class of 1984 student Angelo Ratini, a native of Pittsburgh. The two married during spring break of their second year.

The pair have practiced medicine together for more than 30 years. As Melinda’s career drifted toward medical information – she now spends one day each week in practice and four days working on content for WebMD – Angelo remained a full-time family medicine physician, working with a largely geriatric patient population. He is also associate program director of the hospital’s family medicine residency. Melinda said she strives to make residents aware that there are careers in medicine many physicians don’t know about.

“I try to mentor residents and tell them about the different types of opportunities that are out there. I have three children, and working with medical information gave me flexibility when they were young. There is a need in health care, especially for women, for options that will allow them to raise families and still fulfill their professional goals of becoming physicians and helping patients,” she said.

Articles on WebMD begin with metrics that determine areas of interest in which users of the site want to see content. Once the needed content is identified, an article is assigned to a health education writer who distills complex information into language the average person can understand. But because most of the site’s writers aren’t physicians, a medical review is necessary. That’s where Ratini and her fellow reviewers enter the process, making sure the information is correct and that the sources backing up an article don’t have hidden agendas.

“We have a core of reviewers, and we also have a network of specialists,” she explained. “If I get an article and I look at it and say it needs to go to an ophthalmologist or an oncologist, it goes there. After the article is medically reviewed, it gets copy edited, then it goes to the web. And it’s an ongoing process: WebMD reviews material every two years, so I not only see new articles, but every month I get articles to be re-reviewed. They need to be updated with the most recent data, or if, say, a new drug comes out.”

Ratini said she never expected she’d find herself making use of her information science degree after becoming a physician.

“I remember saying, ‘I’m pretty busy. I don’t need another job.’ But this has changed the course of my life,” she said.

In a consumer culture dominated by the easy access to information the internet provides, some patients are tempted to substitute medical information sites for face-to-face visits with their physician. That’s a mistake, Ratini said.

“It can be used to flesh out information you get from your doctor, but it should never be used in place of a doctor, because there are so many nuances to medical care,” she said. “Medicine is a two-way street: It’s not somebody looking at information, it’s somebody looking at you and then giving you information. There are variables that can’t be covered in an online article. You absolutely need the give and take that’s part of a physician-patient relationship.”

Still, Ratini believes that sites such as WebMD play an important role in modern medicine. She’s proud of her work with the site and defensive about the comments she sometimes hears about “Dr. Google.”

“So often, people walk out of a doctor’s office and say, ‘What did they mean by that?’ And they go home and start searching. Or they go online before they come to the office – someone will come in with a headache, and they’ve just looked online and want to be sure they’re not having an aneurism or have a tumor. You don’t want the information they find online to scare them, but you want to present things so they don’t blow off something that could be serious. I feel good to be a part of that.”

Ken Bays is an editor and writer in the marketing and communications office at West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.

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