Organizations Seek to Help Consumers
Several health and Internet organizations are promoting health care Web site ethics standards to help consumers "evaluate the deluge of medical information on the Web," the Wall Street Journal reports. However, as each group has drawn up its own code of ethics, "the big question" now is whether these groups will be able to reach a universal consensus. Health on the Net, a Geneva-based not-for-profit foundation, in 1996 established a set of principles called the HonCode, and many "major" health sites now post a banner promising to adhere to these principles. But HON Executive Director Tim Nater said because his organization can not monitor all of the "myriad" new sites, "more sophisticated guidelines and more enforcement resources" than HON can provide "are needed." Nater said, "Federal regulators are getting itchy for some sort of regulation. Health on the internet has been like a great sprawling frontier town, and what's gathering steam is an effort to construct a safe neighborhood with law-abiding citizens and businesses you can trust." To this end, HON and the Internet Healthcare Commission have joined with other organizations to construct an "eHealth Code of Ethics." The other groups include the AMA, the Hastings Center, a Garrison, N.Y.-based bioethics research institute, and Hi-Ethics, a coalition of 20 large commercial health sites that has already drawn up its own ethics guidelines.
Health policy analysts Cynthia Baur and Mary Jo Deering point out one major hurdle this amalgam of organizations faces: the "differences in language" between HonCode, Hi-Ethic's code, AMA guidelines and the eHealth Code. The Wall Street Journal reports the groups only agreed on "a few basic" criteria: that Web sites should disclose their financial backers, that they should clearly date their content, that all information sources should be named, that there should be a clear separation of advertising and editorial content and that there should be an easy method for users to submit comments or complaints. But the groups disagree on the finer details of these criteria.
Meanwhile the Internet Health Coalition, which is working with a "broader industry advisory group" to establish health site accreditation standards, has scheduled a second summit meeting for next month. And the WHO has applied to a not-for-profit group that authorizes Internet domain names to create a dot-health domain for sites adhering to WHO's ethics standards. Joan Dzenowagis, a scientist overseeing the WHO project, said, "We want to give teeth to ethical and quality standards" by awarding to the domain name to only those in compliance with WHO standards (Landro, Wall Street Journal, 11/3).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.