Internet site chasing fact, not fiction
TURNING to the Internet for medical information has traditionally been a practice best reserved for gamblers. Some of the information to be found online is accurate, and some of it, er, isn’t. ‘‘ I have seen some truly terrible things — patients with multiple sclerosis, who are desperate, and have paid a lot of money to have tests done that were completely worthless,’’ says doctor Bruce Campbell. ‘‘ They have come to me and I have had to tell them the truth — that they have wasted their money.’’
Such scenarios may soon be less common. Campbell is the chief editor of a new website launched yesterday by federal health minister Tony Abbott which aims to be a comprehensive source of accurate, understandable information about pathology tests: why they are performed, the diseases and conditions they can detect, and how to interpret the results.
When people should consider screening for various diseases, and to what extent people can trust the various home-based tests that are now available, will be among the thorny questions tackled on the site developed by the Australasian Association of Clinical Biochemists with support from the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia.
Although websites with trustworthy health information have gradually been springing up in recent years, few of them have spared much thought for pathology tests. Information available online to date has largely been either of questionable accuracy, or written in scientific gobbledygook unlikely to be comprehensible to the average patient.
The new site, a not-for-profit service called Lab Tests Online, is the Australian version of a site that has already proved a runaway success in the US, where it was first set up in 2001 and now attracts 1 million hits every month.
Three years ago the site was duplicated for the UK market, and it now also operates in Spain, Germany and Poland. Sites in Hungary and Italy are in development.
Project director doctor Andrew St John said rapid advances in genetics and other areas of medicine meant that almost every month there is a new test available’’ and increasingly doctors need to rely on pathology tests for diagnosis and monitoring treatment. When someone is ill, they are often least able to absorb the often complex advice they receive,’’ he said.
‘‘ Lab Tests Online will provide a continuous and ongoing source of accurate and impartial information.’’
The Australian version is derived from both the US and UK sites, and among its several hundred pages includes some fresh information written specifically to reflect Australian practice.
Campbell says the site is expected to expand, but already has information on 138 tests and 78 conditions or diseases — with several pages of information on each.
Like the overseas parent sites, the Australian version is totally free of advertisements and sponsorships, and its content is vetted by the international Health on the Net Foundation, which ensures the site and its information abides by eight principles — such as indicating the authors’ qualifications, supporting not undermining the doctor-patient relationship, proper attribution of information, and backing up of claims.
‘‘ I have seen dozens of websites with completely spurious pathology tests that have no scientific value whatsoever. They are purely preying on the gullibility of consumers,’’ Campbell said ahead of yesterday’s launch.
‘‘ Pathology testing is a black box for patients. They are sent to a clinic to have some blood taken, and they don’t get any information again until they are given their results by the doctor.
‘‘ This site will really help them understand what really happens to that sample.’’
Although the site will not hold individual patients’ details — people will not be able to get their results online — it will help people understand the process better.
The site will also contain Australianspecific information, such as facts about Ross River fever, and other diseases such as dengue fever which, while not confined to Australia, are much more common here than either the US or UK.
It will also have a list of links to other health-related sites, but will only include sites assessed as offering trustworthy information.