I've been working with computers for 12 years. I have a home computer, an office computer and even a notebook computer I carry everywhere I go. So when I need to look something up, I just ... grab a book from the shelf. It's still the quick and easy way to find information about common problems. But sometimes I don't easily find what I need on my bookshelf. That's when I use the World Wide Web. The beauty of the Web, in a nutshell, is that you suddenly have access to a whole wealth of information when you need it.
Here's a simple example. Recently, a pregnant patient who was spotting presented to my office and wanted to know about going to her aerobics class. I remembered that American Family Physician had published a great article about exercise in pregnancy, but my copy was at home. Because I have access to the Web in my office, I was able to access the article through the AFP web site to check my facts and print the patient information sheet accompanying the article. The entire process took just a couple of minutes, and the patient left my office with good advice and a patient education handout to boot. If I had wanted to do a more thorough literature search, I could have used my computer to dial into the National Library of Medicine's Internet Grateful Med site. From there, users can access an entire library of clinical information on virtually any subject.
If you haven't yet tapped into the Internet, maybe it's time you did. It's an unbeatable resource for up-to-date information available 24-7 (that's the '90s buzzword for 24-hour coverage, seven days a week — something we family physicians have been doing for years). And while it offers a lot of clinically useful information, that's only a small part of what you'll find. You sports fans don't have to wait for the evening news or CNN. There are web pages devoted to any sport anywhere in the country (or the world). If you dabble in stocks, you can follow your portfolio with quotes or can access other investor information. You can even access the National Weather Service for four-day forecasts, or check out the radar image for your area to see how much it's raining and where. This year, El Niño gave me lots of practice tracking the movement of storm cells coming off the ocean. Thanks to the Web, I could anticipate how much rain we would get in the next hour or so. And before I hit the Los Angeles freeways, I like to see how fast traffic is moving by accessing a web page that receives data every five minutes from sensors buried in the freeway pavement!
The Internet is also great at managing asynchronous time zones throughout the world. I can send an E-mail message to someone on the East Coast at 11 p.m. PST (when that person has probably called it a day), and he or she can read my message the next morning (before I ever get out of bed), whenever it is convenient. If you're keeping in touch with someone halfway across the world, the Internet is a must. There are no toll charges, and you don't have to coordinate where your correspondent is going to be with the time difference.
Finally, the Internet offers you a chance to pursue hobbies outside of medicine. If you have a particular passion, even for something obscure, there is probably at least one web page with lots of information on that topic. If nothing else, you'll at least realize you're not alone in the world. So now that you know what's possible, let's take the first step: hooking up to the Web.
What do you need to access the Web?
Most computers purchased within the last three years or so come equipped with a modem and a special software program called a “browser,” both of which you will need to access the Web. If your computer does not have a modem, you will need to purchase one and have it installed (your modem should have a speed of at least 14.4 kbps, 56 kbps being the fastest currently available; for Web access, you want the fastest modem you can afford). Your modem will receive data from the Web via your telephone line, so be sure your computer is near a phone jack. You will need to plug the phone line into the back of your computer (or modem), just as you would plug it into your telephone.
The two most commonly used browsers are Microsoft Explorer and Netscape Navigator. The browser is the computer program that takes the data coming through your modem from the Web and turns it into web pages you can read on your computer screen. If you do not have web browser software on your computer already, don't worry. You can obtain a copy of the software you'll need through your Internet service provider (ISP).
What's an ISP? Good question. An ISP connects you to the Web in the same way your local phone company connects you to the phone system. You can't connect to the Web without an ISP. Most ISPs charge about $20 a month for Web access and some related services. There are many ISPs available, but your easiest choices are America Online (AOL; 800-827-6364) and Physicians Online (POL; 800-332-0009). AOL is the most popular online provider because it is easy to use and has organized a lot of information for its members, and because it has been marketing relentlessly for the last few years. Physicians Online, on the other hand, has content geared to physicians and is a few dollars cheaper than many ISPs because it is partially subsidized by advertisements on the screen. If neither of these options appeals to you, you'll find other ISPs listed in your yellow pages.
After you've decided which ISP you'd like to sign up with, give them a call so they can send you the necessary software and further instructions. Sometimes, AOL comes installed on computers when you buy them, so look for an AOL icon. To sign up, you'll simply need to double click on the AOL icon and follow the instructions. Whether you choose AOL, POL or another ISP, don't hesitate to call their customer service hotline if you need help with this process. A good ISP should have customer service available 24-7.
Once you've gotten your Internet connection established, come back to this point in the article for a guided tour of the Web. If you're already online (or are simply curious), here we go.
Gentlemen, start your computers
Before we start exploring, turn on your computer, open your web browser and get onto the Web. When you connect to POL and other ISPs, you have direct access to the World Wide Web. When you connect to a provider such as AOL, however, you are initially connected only to its computer and must do a little navigating to get to the Web. For AOL users, there should be an icon on your opening screen that will take you to the Web. If you can't figure out how to do this, call your ISP and they will talk you through the procedure.
To understand the buttons and icons shown at the top of your browser screen, think of it like this: VCR machines have a window to display the channel and buttons for playing, rewinding, fast forwarding, etc. Browsers have similar functions. First, let's “change the channel” to the AAFP web site.
On most browsers, you will see a box in the upper left corner of the screen with the current channel (a.k.a. web address, uniform resource locator or URL) that usually starts with http://www. Using your mouse, place your cursor in the box at the end of this address. Use the backspace or delete key on your keyboard to erase the old address. Now type the new address (https://www.aafp.org) into the box and hit the enter or return key on your computer. On some browsers, you may need to click on an Open button at the top of the browser, type the AAFP web address in the box that pops up and push enter. The page that appears should look like the one shown below.
I like to think of a web site as a slide presentation where viewers can choose which slides they wish to see in what order. Each slide (web page) contains both text and pictures (graphics). The page may contain as much text and as many pictures as its creator wishes, but most web-page developers limit the size of each page so it doesn't take too long to “load” on your computer. While text does not require a lot of time to load (the time it takes to come through the phone line to your computer), pictures do take time especially if they are detailed, large or if one page contains several.
You enter most sites through the “home page.” This page is an opening page that offers a guide or map telling you what is available on the site and then allows you to choose a direction to explore. After you leave the home page on your journey, the site usually has directions to get back, or you can use your browser software's Back button, which we'll discuss later.
As you look at the Academy's home page, you'll notice that some words appear in a different color. Most of these are embedded “links,” which you can click on to get to other pages or to the appropriate section of the page you are on. You'll see similar links on most web pages you visit. You'll find that some pictures are also links. If you are wondering whether something on the screen is a link, pass the cursor over it. If the cursor turns into a pointing hand, the word or graphic is a link. Another variation is to place a “button” (a graphic triangle, dot or whatnot) next to the words to act as a link. Now hold on to your seats. We're going to catch up with this very article on the World Wide Web.
Place your cursor over the link “Publications” until it turns into a pointing hand and click your mouse on that link. Just a single click is enough to open a link. Wait for the new page to load, then find the “ Family Practice Management” link and click on it. This will take you to the FPM home page. The last step is to find the July/August 1998 issue and click again. Now, you're at the table of contents. When you find the title of this article, click one last time (if you get lost, you can head directly to the article by typing its full address into the box at the top of your screen: https://www.aafp.org/fpm/1998/0700/p43.html).
Getting acquainted with your web browser
Now that we've navigated our way to the online version of this article, we're ready to play. First let's learn the basics and try moving around with the buttons at the top of your browser.
Back. This button usually takes you back to the page you were just viewing (but sometimes will take you to the previous page within that particular web site). If you're following along online, click the Back button once and it should take you to the July/August issue's table of contents. Click it again, and you'll see the FPM home page, and so on. When you go back, notice that the links you've chosen have changed colors. This lets you know you've chosen the link before. Once you've experimented with the Back button, use the Forward button to rejoin the online version of this article.
Reload. This button replaces the web page you are looking at with a fresh copy of the same page. Some sites update their information every few minutes. To obtain the new data, you need to reload the page. If, for example, you are viewing a site that transmits a new picture of traffic flow every five minutes, you'll need to use the Reload button to update the image on your screen. You might also use the Reload button if your computer has trouble loading a web page and you want it to try again. If you click on the button now, it will simply re-access the current page.
Stop. This button does just what it says. If you find that you've pushed a link by mistake, or if your browser is taking too long to load a certain web page, you can hit the Stop button. This will force the program to stop what it's doing so you can get back to where you were.
Find. To search for a certain word or phrase on the web page you are viewing, use the Find button. For example, if you wanted to find the word “Internet” in the online version of this article, you would simply click on the Find button and type “Internet.” The first occurrence of the word would then show up as highlighted. To find subsequent references, use the Find Again command under the Edit menu.
Print. If your web browser doesn't have a button for this, pull down the File menu at the top of the browser. You can use this command right now to print the page currently on your screen.
Save. This will save the text of the page you are viewing to a file on your computer. Look for this option under the File menu if it isn't available as a separate button.
Bookmark or Favorite Places. When you find a web page you like, you can click on the Bookmark button and that address will be saved in your bookmark list. (This option might also be available under a Bookmarks menu.) On AOL, you will see a little heart in the corner of each page that will add the page to a list of favorite places. This way, you can pull up your list and click on the title of the page instead of having to remember all these addresses.
What's a URL?
Everybody has a street address, and every web page has a web address, or URL. You are probably familiar with the general form of these addresses through advertising. For example, you may have seen Coca-Cola's address displayed in its ads as “www.coca-cola.com” (pronounced, “www dot Coca Cola dot com”). Notice that the http:// is missing from the beginning. Many web addresses appear without the http:// as a sort of short-hand version of the address. To avoid confusion, however, it's best to use the full address. Occasionally, you'll find a URL that begins with something other than the standard http://.
Typically, the first part of the URL of a web page simply identifies it as being part of the Web (http://www). The next part is the name of the computer on which the web site resides — often chosen to echo the name of the sponsoring organization (coca-cola). The next part identifies the domain (.com), and any remainder identifies a specific page.
There are several different domain names used in addresses, and they can represent totally different entities. The CDC is a good example. When physicians use the acronym “CDC,” they're usually talking about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is a government entity, meaning it uses the domain .gov (http://www.cdc.gov). But if you traded the .gov for .edu, you'd wind up at the web page for California Design College (http://www.cdc.edu); the .edu domain is for educational institutions. The .org domain stands for organizations, and http://www.cdc.org is the web page for the Citizens Democracy Corps. Finally, .com is for commercial enterprises, and http://www.cdc.com takes you to Control Data Systems, a computer networking company. (If you are reading the online version of this article, you should be able to click on each of the four addresses mentioned above to see the actual web pages.)
When you're looking for a particular web site, be aware that the most obvious address may not be the right one. For example, http://www.ama.org brings you to the American Marketing Association, not the AMA we're all familiar with. The American Marketing Association was probably first to register the “ama.org” name, so the American Medical Association had to settle for http://www.ama-assn.org. If you had tried to find the AMA by typing in the ama.org address, you would have ended up at the wrong place. But there's a much better way to find any web site for which you don't know the URL: Use a search engine.
Using a search engine
If you don't know the address of a site, you can use a search engine or directory such as Alta Vista, Yahoo or any of the many others available. All of these web sites maintain databases of information about web pages and allow users to find pages by searching for key words or phrases. How would you find the AMA? Let's start by using Yahoo, which is probably the easiest to use. Find the box at the top of your browser with the http:// address (or click the Open button on Netscape to find the “open location” box). Type http://www.yahoo.com and push “enter,” or “return.” Your screen should look like the box above.
First, a digression: This is a great place to use that Bookmark or Favorite Places button. You'll want to come back to Yahoo, and one secret of happy web browsing is this: Never type a URL you don't have to type. Now that you've bookmarked Yahoo, let's start searching. Enter “american medical association” including the quotation marks. They tell Yahoo that you are searching for a phrase: all three words in that order. Without quotation marks, Yahoo will find scores of web sites where any of the three words come up. Experiment with and without quotes to see the difference. When you push enter or click on the Search button next to the box, Yahoo will bring up a list of categories and sites that contain the words “American Medical Association.” Quickly search the list, and you'll identify the AMA site you're looking for; on my search, it was the first link on the list. Click on this link, and it will take you to the AMA.
The World Wide Web is such a rich resource, this article can only give you a peek inside. But now that the door is open, you can learn a lot on your own. Browse and learn! As a start, explore some of the family medicine information that's available. While you're visiting Yahoo, try the links it offers to relevant sites. Just search for “family medicine” as you did for “american medical association.” The AAFP home page also offers a list of links to web sites useful to family physicians. You can access the list at https://www.aafp.org/sites. And you might also want to try the online version of an earlier FPM article: “How to Find What You Need on the Internet” (https://www.aafp.org/fpm/970500fm/internet.html), which contains links to more than 70 web sites of interest to family physicians.
Now that you know the basics of getting connected and finding your way around the web, have fun exploring! Drop us a note (or send an E-mail message to firstname.lastname@example.org if you're getting into E-mail too!) and let us know how you did.