Page last updated at 23:21 GMT, Monday, 20 April 2009 00:21 UK

Fears over web health revolution

Surfing the net
The internet is revolutionising health care

Concerns have been raised about the use of the internet and new technologies to revolutionise health care.

There has been a rise in the use of online drug sales and private DNA tests and scans in recent years, says the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

But the independent group said such changes may be putting patients at risk or leading to unnecessary alarm.

Nuffield officials said more regulation may be needed and have launched a consultation to discuss the issues.

The group said it wanted to hear about patients' experiences and the views of private companies offering these services.

Body imaging - Private firms are promoting the use of MRI and CT scans to give people a so-called "MoT" to check for early tumours and heart problems, but there have been reports of misleading results and unnecessary exposure to radiation
DNA profiling - The NHS uses more than 300 different types of genetic testing for things such as Huntington's disease and Cystic Fibrosis, but a host of other unproven tests are also being offered privately
Online drug purchasing - Some 2m people in the UK use the internet to buy drugs, but the web also allows unregulated sales, which doctors have said could be potentially harmful
Internet health information - People can use sites such as WebMD and AskDrWiki to diagnose problems, but GPs have reported a surge in the "worried well" coming to them with concerns prompted by internet searches

The council said there was a whole host of questions that needed to be addressed about a range of services.

For example, it said the information provided by DNA profiling or body imaging using MRI and CT scans could be misleading and difficult to interpret.

Professor Christopher Hood, an Oxford University expert who is heading the consultation, said this could sometimes have a knock-on effect on the NHS with people coming to it with unnecessary medical worries.

The consultation paper also raised concerns about the selling of drugs on the internet.

Last week a poll of GPs found that one in four had treated patients for adverse reaction to medicines bought online.

Professor Hood said: "Cutting out the GP may sometimes be a good thing, providing us with convenience, privacy and control over our health.

"But there is not much regulation of these new services and we may be getting information that causes more harm than good."


But the consultation also said the advance in technology could offer opportunities to the NHS.

One of the examples given was the use of telemedicine in rural areas to allow GPs and patients to use TV link-ups for consultations.

Nuffield director Hugh Whittal said: "There is a range of benefits to be had, but it is only right some questions are asked about risks, the quality of information, equity of access and the impact on the NHS."

Professor Steve Field, president of the Royal College of GPs, said: "I think this just reinforces the need for patients to have a GP.

"Doctors should be empowering patients and help them understand and navigate their way through what is being offered."

But he also warned patients to be wary of some of the services being offered by private firms.

Meanwhile, a leading scientist has questioned the emphasis being placed on genetic research.

Since the human genome was mapped in 2003, there has been significant investment into genes in the belief that cures could be found for everything from cancer to diabetes.

But Professor Steve Jones, head of the biology department at University College London, said: "We thought it was going to change our lives, but that has turned out to be a false dawn."

He said the current "scattergun" approach needed to be re-thought as money may be better spent elsewhere.

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