For more than a century, The Merck Manuals have been a trusted source of information for health care providers and patients alike. We spoke with Melissa Adams, publisher of The Merck Manuals, about how they’ve evolved over the years and the significance of making reliable medical information easily accessible for advancing public health. 

Melissa Adams is publisher of The Merck Manuals.

Melissa Adams is publisher of The Merck Manuals.

Q: The Merck Manuals are a standard bearer for trusted health and medical information for providers and consumers around the world. How did the manuals get their start?

The origin of The Merck Manual dates back to 1899 when our founder George W. Merck, supported the idea of creating a relevant clinical reference for the medical community tailored specifically for physicians and pharmacists called The Merck Manual of the Materia Medica. The book was an alphabetical compendium of all known symptoms, signs and diseases, as well as an easily accessible resource of all known compounds with beneficial or therapeutic properties to treat these conditions.

Below is an excerpt from the 1899 Merck Manual foreword written by George W. Merck:

“MERCK’S MANUAL is designed to meet a need which every general practitioner has often experienced. Memory is treacherous. It is particularly so with those who have much to do and more to think of. When the best remedy is wanted, to meet indications in cases that are a little out of the usual run, it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to recall the whole array of available remedies so as to pick out the best. …. In MERCK’S MANUAL, the physician will find a complete Ready-Reference Book covering the entire eligible Materia Medica. A glance over it just before or just after seeing a patient will refresh the memory in a way that will facilitate the coming to a decision.”

Q: How are the manuals adapting to meet needs in the digital age?

The Merck Manuals have continually expanded the reach and depth of its offerings to reflect its current day mission of providing the best medical information of the day to a wide cross-section of users, including medical professionals and students, as well as consumers.

Our goal is to provide the best medical information available in the most popular and convenient formats for all audiences. To that end, we have professional and consumer websites available in 10 languages including English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Russian. Arabic will be added by the end of the year.

We have recently updated our website with many improved features including structuring the content into readable bite-size amounts of information, the use of bulleting and visual aids, and a Key Points section summarizing the most important things to remember.

We have improved the search box and added a “letter spine” for locating health topics and medical conditions alphabetically for those like me who do not know how to spell words like arrhythmia. The added Quick Links to material about first aid and emergencies are a plus, as well as the normal laboratory results section and the many multimedia assets including videos, animations and 3D models.

Free Merck Manual apps for both professionals and consumers are available in six languages. Access to medical information “on the go” without the need for an internet connection is critical when in remote or underserved areas. We are continuing to improve and update our apps and are even adding a light version this year that will take less memory space. Like the website, the apps are free of advertisements and do not require users to register or share personal information, removing many of the barriers that prohibit individuals from accessing the content they need to make informed personal health decisions.

Q: When you say Merck Manuals, many may first think of clinicians or pharmacists. How have the manuals helped to support the work of professionals in public health?

Through our Global Medical Knowledge 2020 initiative, we aim to make the best current medical information accessible to 3 billion patients and health care professionals around the world by 2020. We are well on our way to achieving that goal by providing free medical information through our websites and apps and the charitable distribution of our books to health clinics and libraries throughout Africa via the non-profit Books for Africa. We have donated tens of thousands of books since our partnership began several years ago.

Public health professionals can direct consumers to the many resources on our site to help with everyday health questions and concerns. In my view, the Quick Facts and the consumer videos are the best for this because they speak directly to someone who may have limited understanding of their health issues.

According to current health and literacy guidelines, Quick Facts provide medical information at a 3rd–4th grade reading level. Today our websites and mobile apps include more than 600 Quick Facts with visual, easy-to-read pages highlighting some of the most common diseases. The Quick Facts are printer-friendly and can be shared or used as an easy takeaway resource for public health advocates.

Our consumer videos — animations in some instances — offer a non-intimidating way to visualize diseases or procedures. For example, you can view the process of an angioplasty to your arteries or learn about how cancer affects your body, which will help the patient to understand the disorder and hopefully increase treatment adherence and favorable outcomes.

Q: How are people accessing and using information to improve their health? Any insights for the public health community?

We hear it from patients and physicians every day — people are searching their symptoms more than ever. Bites and stings, lab tests and infections are some of the most commonly searched terms every year on the Merck Manuals websites. Whether it’s identifying a scary bite or interpreting acronym-filled test results, the need for accurate and trusted medical information is more important than ever. The Merck Manuals remain committed to providing visitors to our site with the knowledge and tools they need to make better decisions and improve their health.

Visitors to the updated Merck Manuals website can expect to find the same reliable medical content continually updated by 350 medical experts along with new and improved resources, including a news feed, infographics, videos, podcasts, 3D models, health calculators and trackers, quizzes, a pill identifier and a guide to the pronunciation of medical terms.

Moreover, we have sections on pressing social issues with significant public health implications like healthy travel, school bullying and elder abuse.

Our multiple translations should be a tremendous help to public health advocates looking to break down language barriers as well as educate, not intimidate, their audiences.

This year, we came out with a new podcast series called Merck Manuals Medical Myths hosted by our editor-in-chief, Dr. Rob Porter, and featuring our expert authors.

We also have a strong and active social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram channels as well as a Student Stories blog featuring medical and veterinary students.

The Merck Manuals continue to partner with libraries, corporations, electronic health record companies and advocacy groups around the world to break down obstacles to accessing medical information.

These are all ways that we are trying to reach consumers and health professionals within the public health community because at The Merck Manuals we believe that informed patients are healthier patients. Medical knowledge is power, pass it on!

The material contained in The Merck Manuals, a series of medical reference books, is written and edited by 350 medical experts to reflect the most current and accurate medical information. The content is regularly updated and digitally enhanced at MerckManuals.com.