Cyber medicine--panacea or cure?

Author:Nevin, Tom
Position:Health
 
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Medical websites, offering instant diagnosis and cure for your ailments--real or imagined--are proliferating with such speed that health regulatory authorities worldwide are hard pressed to deal with the flood. The storm has now reached Africa and medical opinion is sharply divided on the merits or otherwise of cyber medicine. Tom Nevin reports.

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Dwindling resources, burgeoning populations and a chronic shortage of doctors and nurses are throwing healthcare in Africa into crisis. It is time African doctors took a closer look at medical websites and worked out how to use the internet to its best advantage--and also how to avoid abuse of the system.

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Some healthcare providers say the internet can't be ignored and, if used correctly could widen the healthcare net and could save practices' and governments' time and money. Others are not so sure, and temperatures on both sides of the debate are rising.

Virtual medical advice can be obtained either by looking up the information or by subscribing to a virtual clinic with 24-hour online access to trained nurses and doctors and, of course, quacks and medical charlatans.

Worldwide there are a staggering 17,000 medical websites, of which only 200 can be considered legitimate, according to Claudine Singer, a senior analyst with the internet research firm, Jupiter Communications.

Like almost everything else on the internet, it is the quality and thoroughness of the product or service that most concerns doctors and regulators. Unlike buying a lemon on an e-auction for used cars, going wrong with medical treatment can have serious, even fatal, consequences.

The big danger in medicine on the internet is that there's nothing to prevent an unqualified entrepreneur from putting up a virtual brass nameplate as a medical expert.

"The epidemic of so-called doctors to be found on the web these days, particularly sourced from the US, is internet medicine gone mad," says a Namibia specialist. "If you have a mind to, you can diagnose and find treatment for any ailment under the sun, simply by visiting any of thousands of online health sites.

DODGY AND DOWNRIGHT DANGEROUS

"As things stand today," she says, "dodgy and downright dangerous sites like these are impossible to regulate. As soon as one site is shut down, five more take its place under other names and addresses. I guess that's what spooks our regulatory authorities. But I am of the opinion that the internet could be used in a...

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