Feature

The Internet is sparking the entrepreneurial spirit of hundreds of psychologists who are using the tool to branch out beyond the constraints of managed care, the research lab and academe.

Here's a mere sampling of the many psychologists who are testing their ideas in cyberspace.

Reaching out to women

Former journalist Peggy Elam, PhD, discovered a way she could rekindle her passion for writing and help women throughout the world by serving as the "emotional health" expert on allHealth.com's Web site, part of the women's Web site, iVillage.com.

Each week Elam, a practitioner in Nashville, Tenn., writes a question-and-answer column and hosts a one-hour chat session on topics such as depression, stress and relationships.

In both forums, Elam identifies resources that could help women, and occasionally men, in need. But Elam is careful to point out that she does not try to provide online counseling.

"I hope I can provide helpful information and coaching, but I don't overstep the bounds of what is appropriate, don't jump to diagnose somebody, or try to tell them what to do," she says.

The allHealth.com Web site is at www.allHealth.com. Elam's online chat sessions are held Mondays at 9 p.m. Central Standard Time.

Sharing information on a rare lung disease

When his wife was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension four years ago, Armond Aserinsky, PhD, responded by launching a Web site to educate and unite people with the disease, as well as those who care for them.

Aserinsky runs the site with the help of six pulmonologists, a nurse practitioner and 17 volunteers. The site features patient listservs, online chats between health-care professionals and patients, news on developments in pulmonary hypertension, links to medical articles, personal accounts written by patients and a library of scientific literature on the disease.

"The goal is to be a source of community, support and information for everybody who is touched by pulmonary hypertension," says Aserinsky. "There are some people who have never physically met another sufferer of this disease. But online they are part of a community of hundreds of people."

Pulmonary hypertension is a complication of a large number of respiratory and cardiac diseases. Damage to the cardiac or respiratory system causes the pulmonary vessels to contract and, as a result, the blood doesn't get the oxygen it needs. Aserinsky's wife contracted the disease after taking the diet drug, fen-phen.

The Pulmonary Hypertension Central Web site is located at www.PHCentral.org.

Managing problem behaviors

People interested in changing the behavior of others in the home, school or workplace can look to a Web site from the nonprofit Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies for research-based strategies and advice.

The psychologists running the site, Betsy Constantine, PhD, and Joseph Plaud, PhD, intend it to make behavioral research more accessible to the general public, free of charge. The site provides peer-reviewed commentary on behavior analysis and its application to such areas as autism, education, parenting, workplace performance and safety and the training of domestic animals.

"The Internet is a perfect match to our mission of educating the public," says Constantine, the center's executive director. "We can reach a lot more people less expensively this way."

Visit the site at www.behavior.org.

Helping children

Members of APA's Div. 54 (Society of Pediatric Psychology) are working with the Starbright Foundation to build an Internet community where children from more than 60 hospitals nationwide can offer support and encouragement to each other.

Starbright World is a private online network that enables children in hospitals to connect with others via chat rooms and videoconferencing, access preapproved and firewalled Web sites, play online games and use a search engine to find kids with similar conditions or interests. Division members contribute their expertise to the content development of these programs, as well as collaborating with Starbright World to assess the effects of the program.

"The technology of Starbright World has significant potential to reduce stressors associated with repeated hospitalizations and having a chronic disease," says, Ronald T. Brown, PhD, Div. 54 president.

Online testing

Frustrated with the administrative hassles of paper-and-pencil testing, clinical psychologists David Pfenninger, PhD, and Reid Klion, PhD, have launched an Internet-based testing service that they hope will become the amazon.com of professional testing.

Performance Assessment Network (pan) enables psychologists to buy psychological tests and surveys--from clinical inventories to employee selection and screening tests--monitor test-takers' progress and review test results entirely online. Test results are returned to a psychologist within 5 to 10 minutes. And the site's security design features and encryption model make data tampering, confidentiality breaches and hacking very difficult, says Pfenninger.

"We think e-testing is a huge new market," says Pfenninger. "We'd like to see this become the standard operating system for electronic testing."

Visit the site at www.pantesting.com.

Coaching for career women

Ellen Ostrow, PhD, has developed a virtual coaching practice focused on two niche groups: professional midlife women and women attorneys. Her Midlifementor.com site offers information via a free e-mail newsletter, Midlife Passage. The site also hosts Ostrow's virtual coaching practice, which offers individual and group coaching via audio-teleconferencing for a fee.

Ostrow has also developed LawyersLifeCoach.com and a free e-mail newsletter, Beyond the Billable Hour, two services geared for women attorneys who, according to the American Bar Association, are at high risk for stress and mood disorders.

"Behavioral self-management principles easily lend themselves to virtual forms of service delivery," says Ostrow.

Support for psychologists

Self-help sites are a dime a dozen on the Web, but until recently, there wasn't a site for psychologists to vent their frustrations and seek help. That changed last August when several Seattle therapists launched ShrinksOnline (www.ShrinksOnline.com), a free meeting place for therapists to share ideas.

To enter the site, members must have a postgraduate degree in behavioral science. Their discussions are completely anonymous--a feature that allows them to express themselves without fear of violating confidentiality.

Among the site's most popular features is the Steam Room, where members exchange thoughts on everything from fear of lawsuits to ways their work may be affecting their marriages or child rearing.

"Therapists can feel so isolated," says co-founder Susan Love. "This gives them a chance to discuss their anxieties without fear of the public listening in."

ShrinksOnline also has a resident pharmacopsychologist to answer medication questions and two attorneys offering advice on legal and ethical issues.

Magazine on behavioral health

Psychologist Marlene Maheu, PhD, is finding success as editor-in-chief of the net-based Self-Help & Psychology Magazine (www.shpm.com), which she founded in 1994. The magazine provides practical information written by health professionals on such topics as substance abuse, relationships, sexuality, families, eating disorders, workplace violence and performance and traumatic stress. The 3,000-page site also features daily behavioral health-care news, dis cussion boards for more than 60 topics and links to other health-care sites.

Drug and alcohol education

Seven years ago, John Brick, PhD, a biological psychologist, formed Intoxikon International, which provides alcohol- and drug-related education, training, research and consulting to the general public and people in health care and law enforcement. In late 1994 Intoxikon launched its Web site to present the latest research data on alcohol and drug abuse and information about lectures and educational programs to the public. All information is peer-reviewed and free. Visit the site at members.aol.com/intoxikon/research.html.

AIDS information

George J. Huba, PhD, and Lisa A. Melchior, PhD, lead The Measurement Group, a company that disseminates empirical pro gram evaluation results, measures and tools to the world's HIV/AIDS program administrators and researchers over the Web site (www.TheMeasurementGroup.com). Included on the site are evaluations of demonstration projects on innovative HIV/AIDS services and HIV/AIDS demonstration projects on adolescent service models, as well as more than 200 conference presentations and related materials.

Virtual counselor

Linda Tillman, PhD, has created two Web sites to conduct online assertiveness training and to counsel couples on fertility issues for a fee. Tillman, a private practitioner in Atlanta, created www.SpeakUpForYourself.com and launched a coaching business on the Web. Clients visit Tillman through the site, where they can subscribe to a free monthly e-mail newsletter and register for virtual workshops conducted on a telephone bridge line.

Tillman's second site, Fertilitycoach: A Positive Approach to the Challenge of Trying to Conceive (www.fertilitycoach.com), allows Tillman to work with couples who are considering infertility treatment. She runs virtual groups via the Internet on several topics such as "Couples' Communication while Trying to Conceive" and "Handling Holidays."

She also offers a free monthly e-mail newsletter called On Fertile Ground.

Help for eating disorders

After working in a psychiatric hospital for five years, then running a full-time private practice for 17 more years, Cris Haltom, PhD, was looking for a new way to interact with a wider audience on the topic of eating disorders. The result was AnorexiaSurvivalGuide.com, a site for parents of young people with anorexia.

The site offers a free newsletter, "Anorexia Survival Guide for Parents™," and allows parents to join psychoeducational teleclasses designed to support them during their child's clinical treatment for anorexia. For a fee, the teleclasses run for four to six weeks with e-mail support, and may include up to 15 participants joined via a telephone bridge line.

Visit the site at www.anorexiasurvivalguide.com.

--J. CHAMBERLIN AND M. WATERS