Medicine and the internet

April 02, 1999|By KATE COLEMAN

The practice of medicine has moved way beyond horse-and-buggy house calls and bloodletting with leeches.

Computer technology is as much a part of medicine as it is many other areas of contemporary life. Dr. Warner V. Slack compares the effects of the current information revolution to those of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s and early 1800s. "It's just a whole new era," says Slack, associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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University of Maryland School of Medicine requires first-year students take "Informatics," a course designed to teach them how to survive in "cyberworld," according to David Carter, director of media. For about three years, students have been required to have a laptop computer. They can access a school of medicine Web site to look at digitalized versions of slides or review lecture notes.

Slack has been around computers and medicine for a long time. In 1965, he had a patient talk to a computer - punching in answers to medical-history questions at University of Wisconsin Hospitals.


Slack sees the computer as a tool that empowers patients by providing access to information that will help them be partners in decisions about their health.

Hagerstown physician John Hewitt uses the Internet for research and always recommends it to patients looking for information - especially with a new diagnosis of a chronic disease such as diabetes or hypertension. Having people take the time to learn about their illness is better than giving them a handout, he believes.

Jennifer Bain of Keedysville doesn't use the Internet for research, but has found help online in dealing with her multiple sclerosis. She accesses online health chat rooms, communicating with other "MSers" to hear what other kinds of treatments are out there. She has had online chats with people from as far away as Oregon and England.

There can be a problem with online information, however. Not all of it is reliable or accurate.

"Some people don't question the sources," says Hagerstown physician Dr. Robert J. Cirincione.

Viagra, a drug for male impotence, and Propecia, a drug for male pattern baldness, are available through online "consultation" at The patient completes and submits a questionnaire on medical topics. It includes a line for a credit card number.

Physicians also are using the Internet to communicate. Cirincione's practice, Mid-Atlantic Orthopaedic Specialists, has a Web site at

Hewitt also has a Web site:, although he says he's been dragged kicking and screaming into the computer age.

If you visit, you can learn about his education, experience, even see a picture of him in his high school football uniform and as a nursery school student. You also can read about his views on practicing medicine.

Both local doctors sometimes use e-mail to communicate with patients. Hewitt says he can get back to patients more quickly that way. Cirincione calls it user friendly: He can do it from his home at 10 p.m.

"My e-mail address is on my business card," says Dr. Joshua R. Sonett, a thoracic surgeon and director of the lung transplant program at University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. He says he and medical colleagues use e-mail extensively. It's more effective than trying to communicate by telephone with other physicians, other institutions or for cooperative projects, he says. He's working on a project with a man in Hong Kong.

"The time difference is irrelevant," he says. He can send a message across the globe and usually get a response within 24 hours.

-- Health information and the Internet facts and figures

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