E-DOCTORS: ‘New Breed’ Changes the Face of Medical Information
High-profile doctors who combine celebrity with cyberspace are changing the way medicine is promoted and practiced, the Los Angeles Times reports. Many of these "celebrity e-docs" have launched their own Internet sites that are "part online clinic and part marketing tool." "This is a major and important trend in health care," said Harvard Medical School lecturer Tom Ferguson, who has written often on the confluence of the Internet and medicine. "I call it the unbundling of the physician's role," he added. E-doc pioneers include former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop (www.DrKoop.com) and alternative health trailblazers Dr. Andrew Weil (www.drweil.com) and Dr. Deepak Chopra (www.chopra.com). Breast cancer expert Dr. Susan Love (www.SusanLoveMD.com) and MTV "Loveline" host Dr. Drew Pinsky (www.drDrew.com) are among the newest kids on the block. As these and other online doctors explore new ways to educate patients and enhance medical care, they must also perform a delicate balancing act -- how to maintain professional responsibility while expanding their personal aggrandizement?
Blurring the Lines
Because start-up costs for a "respectable" million-hits-a-day site can reach upwards of $10 million, a doctor's reputation can be compromised by the need to finance these online ventures. The Dr. Koop scandal highlights the "potential pitfalls" they must face. Last fall, Koop was harshly criticized for "blurring the lines between content and advertising on his site" and for keeping under wraps his ties to some of the site's advertisers. For instance, DrKoop.com listed hospitals that the site claimed to be among the most innovative in the nation. The site did not explain that each of the 14 hospitals paid a reported $40,000 fee to be listed. Dr. Joshua Hauser, a University of Chicago ethicist who has studied physician Web sites, said that maintaining a balance between advertising and content "remains a sticky issue."
Feeding the Site Info
Hauser highlighted another problem e-docs must face: how to "feed an around-the-clock Web site with timely" and accurate medical information. Hauser said this is a critical issue "because the asymmetry of health care and information is tremendous," adding, "Doctors have a lot of information, and patients don't have a lot. Patients rely on doctors to give it to them." In response to the need for guidelines on correct information, the not-for-profit group Health on the Net Foundation has established a "code of conduct for medical and health Web sites." The code's eight principles include promises that advice is offered by a doctor, unless stated otherwise, and outlines advertising policies. Site operators that conform to the code can include the foundation's code emblem on their page.
Worthwhile Work on the Web
Despite these concerns, e-docs feel their online work is worthwhile because their sites provide a sense of connection between patients and doctors. "The Internet is a better and more efficient way to get information out. When you have questions, it may be at 2 a.m. when you can't sleep. With the Internet, you can get on at any time and get information," said Love (Roan, 1/24).