July 26, 2000
Web-medicine: The new 'apple a day'?
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. The Internet has the potential to dramatically affect 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.
That's according to James Anderson, a professor of medical sociology at Purdue University who has studied the impact of computers on medicine.
"The Internet has changed the way we communicate with each other and the way we gather information," Anderson says. "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 must first and foremost be vigilant about the reliability and accuracy of the Web-based information they are using to make health-related decisions.
"Web sites operated by reputable organizations such as the National Institutes of Health or the Mayo Clinic are going to be more reliable than others," he explains. "A recent survey of 60 Web sites offering treatment suggestions for the relatively common ailment of childhood diarrhea found that 80 percent 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 the information.
"Even if you are exchanging information with actual clinicians, it's very likely that they are not specialists in the area you need," Anderson says. "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 says 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 Web sites providing diagnoses and prescriptions."
Another issue for consumers to consider is the possible conflict of interest that exists when a health-related Web site is financially supported by a pharmaceutical or herbal supplement company.
"If a company is sponsoring the Web site, it follows that its products may be heavily promoted or exclusively prescribed," Anderson explains.
But the one 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 says. "That fact alone will keep most patients in waiting rooms rather than at home in front of their computers."
CONTACT: Anderson, (765) 494-4703; firstname.lastname@example.org