In Brief

A new report from the National Academy of Sciences underscores the Internet's vast potential to bolster health-care services, but calls for more technological advances to realize this potential.

The authors of the report, members of the Academy's Committee on Enhancing the Internet for Health and Biomedical Applications, offer policy- and research-related recommendations for advancing the medium.

The report, Networking Health: Prescriptions for the Internet, outlines the Internet's largely untapped capacity to provide information to consumers, track patient records and bills online and provide health services from afar.

Several challenges are holding back these services, the report says. One is ensuring the quality of online health information. Another is guaranteeing availability and confidentiality of patient records. Yet another is handling cost, equipment reliability and training concerns related to providing telehealth services. For example, health-care providers and patients doing video consultations need costly equipment, uninterrupted, high-speed Internet connections and technological know-how.

But, so far, such challenges are largely unmet, rendering the health-care industry "ill-prepared to adopt Internet-based technologies and applications effectively," the report concludes. What's needed, it claims, are a number of steps by industry leaders and policy-makers. For example the new applications of the Internet being tried by the federal government--Next Generation Internet--should include testing of digitized medical records, online medical consultations and other Internet health services.

Among its other recommendations:

  • The National Institutes of Health and other federal health agencies should fund more information technology research related to health care.

  • Professional associations specializing in health issues and information technology should work with health-care organizations on guidelines for medical use of the Internet.

  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should more aggressively address Internet policy issues, such as intellectual property protection, privacy and access, that influence Internet use in the health sector.

--B. MURRAY

Further Reading

To read the report online, go to www.nap.edu/books/0309068436/html/. To order a hard copy of the report, call (888) 624-8373 toll-free, ask for # 0-309-06843-6. The cost is $23.96.