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BBC Correspondent Richard Evans
"The Internet is changing the doctor-patient relationship"
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Thursday, 25 May, 2000, 16:55 GMT 17:55 UK
Patients flock to net doctors
doctor with patient
New technology is changing the doctor-patient relationship
The internet has given patients access to a mass of information about health, and is changing the relationship between doctor and patient for ever, says BBC correspondent Richard Evans

Gillian Craig from South London is one of a growing number of patients who used a computer to research her condition before consulting her GP.

Because I was more informed I felt I could ask better questions

Gillian Craig, patient

"I'm 51, I had a hysterectomy about 18 months ago," she said, "and I just felt I wasn't functioning like someone of my age should be functioning.

"Then one of the girls at work actually said to me well have you had a look at the Hyster Sisters web site.

"I thought 'What on earth was this?' and it's just a website for women who are either pre-op or post-op of hysterectomies.

"Because I was more informed I felt I could ask better questions. It helped me to stick to my guns, I didn't - in typical female fashion - just have to put up and shut up with what I was feeling."

Hyster Sisters screen grab
British patients often turn to American websites
There are an estimated 20,000 sites on the Internet offering information about health. Increasingly doctors are facing patients armed with pages of their own information from all sorts of sources.

That, according to the British Medical Associaton Internet spokesman Dr Paul Cundy, is starting to change the role of the family doctor.

"Certainly when I qualified," he said, "twelve years ago, the GP was expected to have all medical knowledge crammed inside his skill.

"That is simply not possible these days. Patients are now accessing information and bringing it in to the consultation.

"You need to have someone to say this information is valuable or this is useless. I think people will find that in the information overloaded society which we live in now, that having a personal medical advocate is actually going to be increasingly useful."

NHS Direct screen grab
Popular health site: NHS Direct
Another patient, Marily Garner, says the Internet made her better informed than her own doctor about her particular condition.

"I was diagnosed with endemetriosis," she says. "I looked it up on the Internet. I could find out what it was. I knew what treatment to expect. I have also used it for looking up things on diabetes as there is diabetes in my family. One doctor actually said that he and I should change places as I knew more about it than he did."

Turning to the States

Information on the NHS website NHS Direct is limited and patients like Marilyn Garner are turning elsewhere for information - often to the United States.

Mike Stone of the Patients Association is concerned that many patients are having their expectations raised unrealistically.

"What we would like to see is the Department of Health, organisations which represents patients such as ourselves, NHS Direct, getting together and looking at some kind of accreditation programme for sites that patients can go to, see a logo in the corner and think that the information on that site is good information that they can use," he says.

What is important to us is that whatever we do in terms of information, either to GPs or to patients, it is safe, it is reliable, it is tested and it is clinically sound

Health Minister Geeserla Stuart
The NHS is committed to connecting every doctor in the country to its own secure network - NHS Net - with access to electronic health records on every patient in the country. But the system has been plagued with delays and problems since contracts were signed five years ago.

Work is also under way on an online electronic public library of health. But Health Minister Geeserla Stuart says it is a massive task.

"The NHS employs a million people," she says. "It is a huge organisation. The overall implementation of that strategy across the board will in some areas be quicker than in others.

"What is important to us is that whatever we do in terms of information, either to GPs or to patients, it is safe, it is reliable, it is tested and it is clinically sound."

In medicine - as in many other areas - the growth of technology is enabling individuals to access a much wider range of information. The challenge to the health service is keeping up with the pace of change.

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25 Mar 00 | Health
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