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Cybermedicine redefines health care

Published on: September 25, 2008

Cursor arrowSurfing the Web is no substitute for face time with the family doc. The Internet can, however, make that time more productive and satisfying by putting a world of medical information at your fingertips.

“People who come [to an appointment] well-informed with a specific set of questions help physicians more effectively make their diagnosis and develop a treatment plan,” says Dr. Greg Sorensen, executive director for pediatric specialty care at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.

The Web is equally useful after an appointment, says Heather Cooper, a health educator at Children’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center in Seattle. “You leave with a lot of information you may or may not understand. With the Internet, you can take the time to learn more after you get home.”

Whether it’s before or after an appointment, helping people do their health-care homework is an example of how the Internet has become the engine behind a growing shift in the way medicine is practiced.

“We’re asking people to take a greater role in their own health care,” Sorensen says. “That’s a good thing. I think people are pretty savvy and on the whole will make good decisions for themselves and their families.”

Going from paper to digital

One of the most dramatic examples of how digital technology is redefining the flow of health-care information involves the advent of electronic medical records (EMR). Although EMRs are still an exception to the rule, more and more health-care providers are switching from paper files to computer files to manage patient records.

Besides saving on paper and storage space, EMRs give all members of a patient’s health-care team instant access to the patient’s medical history, enabling them to better coordinate care by being aware of each other’s actions and recommendations.

But that’s not all. EMR systems also have the ability to put patients in the loop. That’s what Group Health Cooperative does. The Seattle-based network gives patients access to their EMRs through MyGroupHealth. A similar system, My Chart, is in the works at Swedish.

MyGroupHealth provides a secure link from the cooperative’s Web site to a patient’s EMR. It also allows patients — or in the case of children, their parents — to send messages to doctors, request appointments, refill prescriptions and browse the cooperative’s database of health information.

“Part of our job is to provide people with all of the tools they need to take care of themselves,” says Dr. Matt Handley, a Group Health family physician and associate medical director for quality and informatics. “MyGroupHealth is another step in transparency and putting people in charge of their own health care.”

Although patients have always had the right to see their medical records, EMRs make it more practical by enabling patients to view the records without leaving home. What’s more, EMRs allow patients to enter information such as family and personal histories. “That’s nice for doctors, because one of the challenges is making sure we know what the patients know,” Handley says.

MyGroupHealth also enables patients and doctors to exchange secure electronic messages. Unlike phone calls, the messages automatically become part of the patient’s EMR. “I’ve been a physician for over 20 years and I can’t tell you how cool that is to be able to do that with patients,” Handley says.

Surf the right Web sites

Living on planet Google, it’s faster to find a mountain of information about mononucleosis than say it. But people need to be smart about what information to trust.

“Go for information from Web sites from a government or nonprofit organization that end in .edu, .gov or .org,” Cooper says. In addition, make sure the site has been recently updated to reflect the latest information and lists contact information.

“The biggest danger is that people think they can diagnose themselves,” Cooper says. “You shouldn’t act on any information without talking to your provider. It can also be scary, because you can find some worst-case scenarios out there.”

Healia is a Bellevue company that enables people to tailor their search for information based on factors such as age, gender and heritage as well as the trustworthiness of the source. Free to users, the service is supported by advertising.

“The major search engines are doing a better job, but there’s still a lot of spam,” says Dr. Tom Eng, who funded the company with help from a National Institutes of Health grant. “We try to do the heavy lifting for people by assigning a quality score to search results.”

Earlier this year, Healia launched an online community that enables people to create personal support networks with others who share their health interests. Users can also obtain answers to questions from an experienced panel of health professionals.

But patients aren’t the only ones tapping the power of the Internet. “My physicians group is increasingly using the Web,” Sorensen says.

Rather than bouncing between the hospital floor and the hospital library to collect information about how best to treat a patient, doctors are visiting various professional Web sites to find the most current facts in a matter of minutes, he says.

At Northwest Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle, the Internet is providing patients and families with an easy way to keep friends and relatives informed of a patient’s condition. CarePages enables a patient or designated family member to create a Web page where they can post updates and even pictures.

Guests to the page can write messages, send virtual gifts and read blogs about patient care written by experts. Patients can allow open access or restrict access to a specific list of people.

“It’s very, very easy to create [and] it takes the burden off … to get the news out to family and friends about a loved one,” says Karen Peck, director of marketing.

Brad Broberg is a freelance writer and a former newspaper reporter and editor who lives in Federal Way with his 12-year-old daughter, Rachel.


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