Medics and consumers log on to NIH sites

Medics and consumers log on to NIH sites

BY DIPKA BHAMBHANI | GCN STAFF

What began as a single Web site for quick dissemination of information to the medical community has expanded into 25 of the most significant health care sites on the Internet.

'It's been one of the great success stories,' said Dennis Rodrigues, chief of the Online Information Branch at the National Institutes of Health. The Web opens doors for many people to NIH information that was not accessible before, he said.


The National Library of Medicine offers comprehensive medical information online at Medlineplus.gov.
NIH's Web launch in 1993 was a simple virtual mission targeted toward the scientific community, said Rodrigues, one of the original seven developers.

Now disabled people and rural residents all over the world can stay up to date on medical breakthroughs through www.nih.gov.

'We're touching the lives of people that before that time felt shut out,' Rodrigues said.
NIH's Web sites, hosted by the agency's Center for Information Technology and overseen by the NIH World Wide Web Coordinating Committee, branch out to every kind of user.

While doctors and nurses can take a course for credit from the National Cancer Institute's site, other Internet users can find out what those mumpslike bumps or stomach pains mean by visiting Medlineplus, the National Library of Medicine's compilation of articles and other health information, at Medlineplus.gov.

'The National Library of Medicine has traditionally been a library for the medical community,' Rodrigues said. 'But once they created the Web site, they found over 80 percent of traffic was from patients.'

Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. Research, a New York Internet research company, reported there is a $10 billion health care market waiting to be captured.

'Despite the enormous potential of the Internet to transform health care, to date, this promise has largely gone unrealized,' Jupiter analyst Claudine Singer said.

The percentage of health transactions online could reach 29 percent by 2005, Singer said. Total transactions last year accounted for 1 percent of Web traffic.

People generally mistrust health information found on the Internet, Rodrigues said. But NIH has started to change that.

Good data spreads

'A lot of our information does make its way into other Web sites almost on a daily basis,' he said. That helps build credibility for other health information Web sites.

Analysts said 46 percent of Internet users are frustrated by irrelevant hits when looking for health information, and 34 percent question content credibility.

Rodrigues acknowledged the growing problem of misused health information on the Web, and said the NIH sites are aiming to combat that problem with distribution of credible information based on NIH's in-house research.

'That issue has been debated for quite some time, and there has been a lot of effort on the part of a variety of groups to educate the public on Internet use of health information,' Rodrigues said.

But other health Web sites have begun improving content credibility, Rodrigues said, as NIH information permeates dozens of other Web sites.

'There is an untapped opportunity for technology companies to revolutionize the online health industry by providing centralized solutions to power individual electronic shingles or front ends of physician Web sites,' Singer said.

By filling the gap between data for the medical community and bad information from questionable Web sites, NIH had found its niche in the virtual world, Rodrigues said.

Less than 1 percent of NIH's annual $19 billion budget goes to its Web operation, Rodrigues said.

'And 1 percent is not a trivial amount of money,' he said. 'It was zero [a few] years ago. It came out of nothing.'

Initially, NIH officials found people and resources for the Web wherever they could, he said.
The Web work force has also increased and is somewhat easier to gauge. About 100 of 16,000 NIH employees work at least part-time on Web efforts.

The growth of NIH's Web sites has also affected nontechnical agency employees.

Nancy Nelson, a science writer for the National Cancer Institute, said she had to learn to write for the Web and work with computer graphics, and her faxes are slowly being replaced by e-mail messages.

Data flows

'We're more efficient, but I don't think the quality of the information has changed,' she said. 'It just makes it easier to get to more people.'

To further leverage the Web and increase efficiency, NIH is building an intranet on which the institutes will maintain an administrative database. 'We feel like our projects are never completed,' Rodrigues said.

Funding for the Web sites varies. There is no allocated budget, only leftover dollars from administrative costs, but benefits clearly exceed any cost for Web development, Rodrigues said.

More than a year ago, the NIH sites received 1.5 million visitors each month. 'Let's assume that if half of those individuals had called in, just the cost alone of printing, processing and mailing that material would have been significant,' Rodrigues said.

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