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Web Medicine: The New "Apple a Day"?

The Internet has the potential to affect dramatically the way medicine is practiced in this country, but surfing the Web is not going to replace a visit to the doctor's office any time soon, maintains James Anderson, a professor of medical sociology at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., who has studied the impact computers have on medicine.

"The Internet has changed the way we communicate with each other and the way we gather information," he explains. "In the case of medical information and services, it's a bit of a double-edged sword. There is plenty of well-documented research available that can give consumers a leg up in understanding the complexity of their health care issues, but there is also plenty of misinformation that can be misleading or just plain dangerous."

Anderson says consumers first and foremost must be vigilant about the reliability and accuracy of the Web-based information they are using to make health-related decisions. "Websites operated by reputable organizations such as the National Institutes of Health or the Mayo Clinic are going to be more reliable than others. A recent survey of 60 websites offering treatment suggestions for the relatively common ailment of childhood diarrhea found that 80% of those sites contained inaccuracies when compared to official information from the American Academy of Pediatrics."

Anonymity is another concern, because consumers who seek medical advice online have no way of checking on the credentials of the person providing it. "Even if you are exchanging information with actual clinicians, it's very likely that they are not specialists in the area you need. There is further debate about the safety issues involved when doctors prescribe medications over the Internet without ever having seen the patient, not to mention the fact that the Web is giving Americans access to foreign Internet pharmacies that dispense drugs that haven't been tested or approved for use in the United States?

Anderson argues that it will take time for regulations and the ability to enforce them to catch up with the current technology. "The American Medical Association has made it clear that it opposes the dispensing of medication in this manner, but the Boards of Medical Examiners just don't have the resources necessary to properly investigate the number of websites providing diagnoses and prescriptions."

Another issue for consumers to consider is the possible conflict of interest that exists when a health-related website is financially supported by a pharmaceutical or herbal supplement company. "If a company is sponsoring the website, it follows that its products may be heavily promoted or exclusively prescribed."

The factor that is likely to determine whether online health care service goes mainstream is the status of third-party reimbursement. "Right now, only the smallest fraction of health-related services available on the Web are covered by insurance," Anderson points out. "That fact alone will keep most patients in waiting rooms rather than at home in front of their computers."
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Title Annotation:online health care service - usage; regulations; conflict of interest
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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