There's a lot of talk these days about how the Internet is going to transform healthcare delivery. One fact is obvious, however. Until physicians sign off on this new technology, radical change simply isn't going to happen.
For instance, physician use of the Internet isn't nearly as high as most people would expect, according to FIND/SVP's 1997 American Interactive Healthcare Professional Survey. The survey's editor, Michael Brown, says 43% of physicians use the Internet for professional purposes. But of those, 26% use "technology proxies," or staff members, to do their searching. On the other hand, almost 60% of healthcare executives say they use the Internet for everything from research to marketing.
Dave Bulger, chairman of Raleigh, N.C.-based MicroMass Communications, believes that until hospitals and health systems install state-of-the-art PCs on physicians' desks, they will continue to hold on to archaic equipment such as dictaphones.
However, Tom Ferguson, M.D., believes the problem is more attitudinal than technological. He's the author of Health Online (Addison-Wesley, 1996) and a leader in the growing self-care movement. He says only about 25% of doctors are comfortable with computers and the on-line world.
On the patient side, however, all kinds of developments are taking place. Thousands of special-interest health communities covering everything from chemical dependency to diabetes have popped up all over the Internet. Wired consumers now use e-mail to communicate with fellow patients, family members and their family doctors. They're also in touch with clinicians and researchers nationally and internationally.
It's estimated that about 10% of physicians already have mined World Wide Web gold. Mark Perloe, M.D., an infertility specialist, beat his colleagues to the Web back in 1994 and has since acquired an international reputation in assistive reproductive technologies. He claims his Web site was the best marketing investment he ever made and today hosts a weekly online chat for current and prospective patients. His practice is flourishing, and colleagues write him from around the world.
For some physicians, even e-mail may be a distant dream. Many are stymied by lack of access to technology, technical savvy, organizational support and an understandable fear of legal quicksand. Therefore, in order to make sense out of these challenges and roadblocks, they need the guidance of physician executives who have firsthand knowledge of the Internet's promise and the potential power of technology to transform healthcare delivery.
The future holds the promise of easing the informational burden for healthcare professionals. Providers will be able to lead patients to user-friendly software capable of helping them with self-care and treatment. It will be interesting to see how physician executives respond to these opportunities and challenges. Their role will be pivotal.
The time has come,
Charles S. Lauer