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January 9, 2004
Volume 41, No. 6


Prescription for success: Virtual Hospital still going strong after 10 years on the web
Unique Iowa program strives to open up a world of accessibility for Iowans with disabilities
Complementing medicine, enriching lives: Project Art celebrates 25 years of serving patients, staff at UI hospitals
Fall 2003 IOWA winners announced

news and briefs

News Briefs
Study abroad opportunities for faculty
UI set to celebrate legacy of MLK Jr.
Staff Council solicits new members
Annual UI target report available online

December Longevity Awards



Publications and Creations

Offices and Awards

Ph.D. Thesis Defenses

other links

TIAA Cref Unit Values

Learning and Development Courses

The University of Iowa

The University of Iowa

Prescription for success

The Virtual Hospital team stops for a photo
The team that makes the Virtual Hospital possible includes (standing, from left to right) Nola Riley and Kevin Switzer, web developers; Greg Johnson, manager; Michael D’Alessandro, medical director; Bill Carlson, systems administrator; Mary Greer, intranet webmaster; and (seated) Julie Bates and Lynn Nix, web developers. Additionally, more than 300 University health care professionals contribute content. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Virtual 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.

Medical drawing
Virtual Hospital’s Atlas of Human Anatomy

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 you!”

That site is the University of Iowa Virtual Hospital,, 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 it credibility.”

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 (, 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 sciences.”

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 doorstep.”

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 Moninger


Published by University Relations Publications. Copyright the University of Iowa 2003. All rights reserved.


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