Experts in medical ethics, patient advocates and other concerned parties complain that much of the information available on the 15.000 or more medical Web sites is misleading and potentially harmful. A number of American medical companies are currently drawing up their own guidelines to protect consumers from unreliable health advice and information on the Internet. Two separate initiatives by drkoop.com and Medscape Inc. aim to regulate advertising, content, sponsorship and privacy, following the serious public concern over the accuracy of information available on Web sites and how medical home pages are making use of personal data collected from consumers. The major objection is that Internet health companies do hardly distinguish unbiased medical content from adverts or promotional material.
The United States push for regulation follows several lawsuits against Web sites for allegedly criminal conduct. Last October, the State of Illinois sued four on-line pharmacies and their affiliated doctors, claiming them for having violated several state licensing and medical practice laws, by heavily putting the consumers' health at risk. Illinois already was the third American state, after Kansas and Missouri, to file a suit against Internet prescription sites. An urgent need has emerged to introduce qualitative health guidelines for an appropriate evaluation of health Web pages. In the United Kingdom, medical bodies have called for similar initiatives to protect patients. Dr. Simon Fradd, Chairman of the British Medical Association's Doctor-Patient Partnership, is convinced that the ideal solution would be to promote a handful of validated Web sites.
The proliferation of Internet sites makes regulation extremely difficult, so this is why official bodies like the British National Institute for Clinical Excellence should make an issue of providing reliable information, as Dr. Fradd states. Such an Internet "supersite" with health data which patients can trust will very soon be launched in the States by AMA, the American Medical Association and six related physician groups. Medem.com indeed is the Web site patients all over the USA have been waiting for, according to Dr. William H. Mahood, MD and AMA Trustee who strikingly identifies the patient-doctor relationship as the heart and soul of quality health care. At the very core is the trust patients have in the training, experience and ability of their doctor. With the development of medem.com, this type of credible health information is just a "click" away, as Dr. Mahood states.
Next to AMA, the partners in medem.com comprise the American Academy of Ophthalmology; the American Academy of Paediatrics; the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology; the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists; the American Psychiatric Association; and the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons. These societies will own and control the new entity established to create the Web site. It will consist of an independent editorial operation and a separate business unit. The editorial operation will be responsible for the content of medem.com and will ensure that patients have access to the most credible, trustworthy and high quality health information on the Internet. In addition, patients and physicians will be able to communicate with each other confidentially through the Web site.
Advertising on medem.com will adhere to very strict guidelines. The business unit will handle the design, development and management of the Web site to ensure that any revenue generated by the venture is directed back straight into sustaining and improving the site. The business plan also provides for a health care charitable foundation to fund philanthropic direct patient care programmes. Any revenue earned by the AMA will support the association's role as advocate for the medical profession and the patients it serves. Read more on guidelines to assist health consumers in finding their way through the forest of trustworthy medical Internet sites in the VMW article American Telemedicine Association to issue advice on use of medical Web sites in the September 1999 issue.