Heal thyself Web site launched

NHS move to Internet criticised as too hasty

Prime Minister Tony Blair launched a "heal thyself" Web site Tuesday as part of the government's modernisation plans.

NHS Direct Online is the UK's first comprehensive gateway to health information on the Net and it is hoped it will provide advice to two-thirds of the country's population. Initially only available to people with Net access at home, it is set to arrive in hundreds of access points in supermarkets and chemists around the UK next year.

The service is an extension of the telephone help line already run by the NHS. Secretary of State for Health Alan Milburn believes the new service will continue to save lives. "There is no doubt that NHS Direct has saved lives. In September this year, nearly 70 percent of all callers who spoke to nurses were directed to more appropriate care than they were planning. For two thousand callers an ambulance was called," he said.

In the US, getting medical information over the Net is common practise with some Web sites keen to publish private medical details, like blood results on the Net. In the UK, the BMA (British Medical Association) has expressed some concerns about the new online approach to health care.

Speaking about the NHS site a spokeswoman welcomed the move but expressed caution. "This is a massive step on from traditional health care and it has been rolled out very quickly," she said. "It is important to assess that it is a benefit to people. We don't want to see patients referred inappropriately."

Professor Vallance of University College Hospital is working on a computer programme to help patients diagnose and act on heart problems. He believes the NHS site is an excellent idea. "The great challenge with putting medical information on the Web is making sure that information is accurate," he said. He is confident a government health portal will provide better information than some of the more inaccurate health sites currently floating around on the Web. "The better informed people are, the better health care they can be offered," he said.

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