A Washington-based coalition of Web site operators, government agencies and academic centers last month released a voluntary code of ethics for health-related Web sites.
The code created by Internet Healthcare Coalition was the product of an ethics summit held in Washington earlier in February. It was attended by representatives of the participating groups, including Medscape, Mediconsult/Physicians' Online and the Federal Trade Commission. The code establishes principles for quality of health information, disclosure of ownership or financial relationships, distinguishing advertising from content, privacy and physicianpatient communications via the Web.
Ahmad Risk, M.D., summit co-chair and a primary-care physician in Brighton, England, says he hopes sites will begin adopting the voluntary set of standards.
Another coalition, Hi-Ethics, which includes drkoop.com, WebMD and other consumer health sites, is working on its own set of ethical standards, which are expected to be released sometime this month (see December, page 2).
Beth Nash, M.D., chief medical officer of Tarrytown, N.Y.-based Mediconsult/Physicians' Online, sits on both coalitions and says the need for such standards is stronger than ever.
"It's an incredibly timely and important issue, and I think there's widespread understanding both in the medical community and in the public about how important it is," she says.
According to Risk, the IHC code requires organizations collecting personal information about Web visitors to inform the consumer what information is being gathered, with whom it will be shared and how it will be used.
The code also establishes principles for protecting the privacy of health information on the Web, a growing concern as providers move to electronic transmission of patient records and insurance claims.
The responsibility of protecting patient confidentiality squarely on providers, Risk says, and physicians must seek Internet partners who place a premium on security.
"I wouldn't say to you, 'well, I'm sorry, but the landlord of my office building has access to my files,"' Risk says. "It is my duty to protect and safeguard your personal health information."
The Internet's potential to empower patients depends on how physicians communicate with their patients electronically, Risk says. The code states that physicians who practice on the Internet have an obligation to describe the constraints of online diagnosis and treatment recommendations to patients.
Risk also says the professional standards that apply to physicians in the bricks and mortar world should also apply in the online world.