The American Telemedicine Association, the leading organization which promotes and guides the deployment of telemedicine, is issuing some useful advisories for consumers and medical providers on appropriate use of the Internet to obtain health information and medical services. The Internet offers consumers access to a wealth of health and medical information that can increase the knowledge and ability of the individual in taking personal responsibility for his own health. The tremendous growth in the availability of this information over the Internet is a very positive and appropriate use of this technology.
The Internet is also an important vehicle to be used effectively in the delivery of medical care. Some of these applications include the delivery of patient specific information between the medical specialists and primary health providers, and furnishing diagnostic, therapeutic and educational information between established patients and their personal physicians. Governmental and industry regulation of this area should be approached with caution and only on an incremental basis. There exists a great danger in each type of overzealous regulation of commerce, especially if it involves communication of information.
Self-regulation by the existing on-line and medical communities should be encouraged, including the accreditation of sites by professional and medical societies. A clear distinction has to be made between the Internet-based activities that only provide information and those that sell medical services and products. Despite these statements, the ATA or American Telemedicine Association recognizes that there is a potential for abuse in the provision of health information and medical treatment over the Internet. Since the use of the Internet for accessing health information and medical treatment is new, there exists little in the way of safeguards for consumers.
Therefore, the ATA provides specific advisories for consumers who choose to use the Internet to obtain information about health care or who seek medical treatment.
- Consumers should make sure that Web sites used to obtain information about health and medicine are provided by a reliable and credible source, such as recognized and credentialed health care providers, and use sources that are based on qualified authorities. The source of the information should be clearly labelled and annotated. The American Telemedicine Association endorses the concept of professional societies accrediting Web sites which provide consumers health and medical information.
- In some cases, commercial interests, such as a drug manufacturer may sponsor or contribute information to a Web site. Consumers should look for assurances that the information provided in these cases is objective and does not favour the sponsor's products.
- At this time, consumers should exercise caution in using Web sites that offer on-line diagnosis of an individual's medical condition and prescribed treatment and medication for the diagnosed condition. There are currently no recognized accreditation or regulatory authorities entitled to oversee the operation of these sites.
- It is a widely recognized conflict of interest for health professionals who prescribe medicines to have any direct financial relationship with an entity that sells those medications. Therefore, consumers are cautioned against obtaining prescribed medicines from Web sites that offer both diagnosis of condition and direct sales of the prescribed medicine.
- Medical professionals in almost all developed nations are required to obtain credentials from a recognized authority in order to practice medicine. For example, health professionals in the United States are issued a license to practice medicine by individual state authorities. Consumers who seek medical treatment from health professionals over the Internet should receive clear assurances that they will be interacting with a qualified professional holding the appropriate credentials and that the professional is really able to legally practice medicine in the consumer's location.
- Clinical consultation over the Web by credentialed providers should include procedures that protect the patient, such as:
- Informed consent; information security and privacy protection measures; and
- Documentation of the clinical encounter. Speciality medical societies are encouraged to develop guidelines to ensure that clinical consultations provided over the Internet are consistent with accepted medical practices.
The American Telemedicine Association constitutes a non-profit association, established in 1993 and headquartered in Washington, DC. ATA promotes the deployment of telemedicine to improve the delivery of health care for all individuals. Its members include physicians, allied health professionals, technologists and health care administrators. A Board of Directors, elected by the membership, governs the Association. Please, find more information at the home page of the American Telemedicine Association.