In America getting medical information over the Internet is becoming increasingly popular. A recent study by Jupiter Research predicts health and medical advertising could soon generate an income of $265m (£161.6m) by the year 2002 with over half the revenue from direct advertising from pharmaceutical companies.
Web sites like OnHealth and iVillage's Better Health are springing up in the US and some experts believe that between 30 to 40% of Internet users go online specifically for health care information. One company, Home Access Health Corporation has applied to the FDA for permission to publish blood test results on the Web.
Jupiter warns that such sites must be secure and provide trustworthy information in plain English - a view endorsed by the British Medical Association (BMA). The BMA sees no problem with publishing medical information on the Web as long as records remain secure.
Julia Schofield, managing director of multimedia firm Julia Schofield Consultants, is aware there are a range of issues to be considered. "It is quite dangerous to have information available without some sort of control," she said. "It may be that the level of information available needs to be monitored. Doctors need to be comfortable with it and whatever drugs companies put out needs to be regulated. What is available, who it is available to and what mechanism is in place for protection all need to be carefully looked at."
Empowering patients using the Web was uppermost in Professor Patrick Vallance's mind when he commissioned a program to assess heart risk problems for patients referred to the cardiovascular risk clinic at University College Hospital. The program is designed to allow patients -- in consultation with their doctor -- to form a detailed picture of possible risks and come up with a package of treatment, exercise or diet to limit them accordingly.
"It's trying to get away from the old adage of 'trust me, I'm a doctor' and allow patients to decide what is best for them," says Vallance. Designed in the hospital's IT department, the program allows doctors to tap in information about specific patients and return a risk score compared to a mythical person of the same age and sex. The program accounts for possible life-style changes, such as giving up smoking and offers advice such as how a certain drug would he, say, in reducing blood pressure. Vallance hopes to pass the program on to other GP's and a lay version is planned for the Web.
For those who dread a visit to the hospital even more than to the doctor, the Virtual Hospital may provide reassurance. The website guides visitors around wards, discusses different treatments and offers a virtual children's hospital for younger members of the family.
Developed by the radiology department at Iowa University the virtual hospital is designed to reassure patients and answer questions about a variety of illnesses.
A similar project is under development at the Norfolk and Norwich hospital in the UK. The radiotherapy physics department is hoping to put a virtual reality radiotherapy room online within 3 -6 months. The room will be an exact model of the real thing and is designed to reassure patients worried about receiving radiation treatment.
At last, technology may play a very real part in soothing worries about disease as well as offering reliable information on treatment and prognosis.