The Internet can bring a library of medical data to a physician's door, but it also can give a novice a bad case of information overload.
The amount of online data available to physicians is almost limitless -- from biomedical research literature to drug product information.
Unlike a library, however, the Internet is not always easy to navigate. It can be difficult for physicians to find the specific information necessary to stay up-to-date on advances in medicine and healthcare management. As a result, some doctors choose to rely on more traditional resources.
"The best two resources for MDs remain their colleagues and their medical librarian," says Mark Frisse, M.D., associate dean of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "Most simply, a doctor will call an expert when they need information before they will go to their computer. They will call disease-specific organizations that they know are credible sources of information for physicians."
While some doctors have reservations about online data, the Internet is fast becoming a way of life for the rest of the healthcare community, including hospitals and medical schools. Medical professionals are doing everything from relaying diagnostic data to conducting research inquiries online.
The public also is going online for answers to health questions. An estimated one in three Internet users is seeking health and medical information from among more than 10,000 health-related Web sites, according to the Medical Library Association, based in Chicago.
Determining the credibility of healthcare information on the Internet has become a serious challenge, and physicians often turn to medical librarians for help.
Medical librarians have dealt with computerized medical information since the advent in 1964 of the National Library of Medicine's Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System, or MEDLARS. As a result, they're well-versed in finding and evaluating healthcare data.
"Medical librarians can point people to the best Internet sites, help them narrow down their reading choices or explain complicated information in easy-to-understand terms," says Rachael Anderson, past president of the MLA, which represents more than 1,200 institutions and 3,800 professionals in the health sciences information field.
"As we move into the 21st century, it is clear that the advancement of telecommunications technology will continue to revolutionize the delivery of healthcare in the United States," says MLA Executive Director Carla Funk.
The Internet can be a helpful tool in addressing physicians' growing administrative responsibilities. Doctors' paperwork continues to pile up as they attempt to meet requirements of managed-care organizations and other payers.
They also must review new medical literature and disseminate it to others in their organizations.
In addition to medical librarians, physicians can turn to some online organizations for help in finding credible information on the Internet.
Executives at MDConsult, a St. Louis-based online service aimed at physicians, say 15 hospitals and medical centers across the nation now provide comprehensive clinical information to physicians and medical professionals via its Web site.
The service features a collection of brand-name clinical references and up-to-date information from medical publishers and societies around the world.
Among organizations using the site are the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and Tulane Medical Center Library, New Orleans.
"While there is a glut of free medical information on the Internet, physicians recognize it can be hard to find, it is not always reliable, and it is often quite limited in scope. Our subscribers find MDConsult a welcome change," says Jerry Freeland, president of MDConsult and a 30-year veteran of the medical reference publishing industry.
Medsite, a popular medical search engine, also can make a physician's quest for data easier. Medsite rates and reviews more than 11,000 medical and health-related sites; it generates 2 million visits per month, up from approximately 40,000 in June 1997. Medsite Publishing resells Internet and software products in the medical, pharmaceutical and healthcare fields.
Medsite's editorial board consists of medical and health professionals from a wide range of specialties, which allows it to enhance the consistency and quality of its information.
Physicians Online, based in Tarrytown, N.Y., deems itself America's largest Internet community of MDs. Physician discussion is among the site's most popular features. Over the past year or so, about 125,000 messages on 17,000 topics have been posted on boards in the physician discussion area, says David Danar, vice president of online medical information. Although the boards include general information, 15,000 of the 17,000 message topics were medical-related, he says.
Washington University's Frisse thinks the future value of the Internet won't be providing online libraries, but rather replacing all the paper created by managed care.
"The Internet will change administrative support in medical practice in a fundamental way. . . . Just look at the way Netscape changed the way the world looked at the Internet," he says, referring to the company that has been one of the leaders in Internet search technology.
Frisse says services such as Healtheon Corp., which had the same founder as Internet giant Netscape, are likely to change the way the medical profession and patients interact. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Healtheon develops Internet-based healthcare software and services.
"In the long run, the Internet's value to a physician will be around the management of healthcare rather than the actual medical needs," he says.
Dan Bischoff is a Chicago-based writer.