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Cures by the click

March 13, 2003 10:40 IST

Apart from their doctors, people now rely on online medical advice too

When Sanjay Kapoor was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a disease for which there is no existing cure, he was at his wits' end. The information given by his doctors was limited and offered no concrete solution. What he did, therefore, was turn to the Internet.

"I wasn't satisfied with the information I had received, so I logged on to the Mayo Clinic Web site and printed out 20 pages of information on IBS featured there. It made me more aware of the problem, the likely causes and prognosis. I found things even my doctors didn't know about, which helped me deal with the problem."

Kapoor is part of an increasingly large group of people logging on to find solutions to medical problems. "I think it's the best place to turn to," he says, "for information not only on diseases, but also on medication, conditions and treatment. It helps me make better decisions."

While Kapoor followed up visits to the doctor with a visit to the Net, Vinta, an executive with an Indian portal, spent a couple of weeks researching online before deciding whether she wanted to perform Lasik surgery on her eyes. "I checked Web sites like Lasik Eye Surgery, Ask Lasik Doctors and All About Vision," she says. "Some actually give you a graphic representation of the surgery."

Vinta decided to log on after reading a number of anti-Lasik articles in newspapers. "The easy accessibility and ready availability of information online made it a natural choice for research," she adds. She also went a step further and looked up information on her doctor. "I was referred to a specialist, whom I also did research on. I came across some articles by him on the procedure, which I read before I met him."

Did it help? Yes, says Vinta. "Knowing about the surgery was extremely useful as it helped me ask the right questions. I could also tell if my doctor was giving me facts, not false reassurances." Most doctors now accept their patients' doing independent research on their ailments, while some even encourage it. "I believe the more informed and empowered a patient is, the better it is for both, doctor and patient," says Dr. Vibha Krishnamurthy, a Mumbai-based Developmental Paediatrician. "The mindset of how a doctor is viewed is changing. We no longer just tell patients what to do and expect them to follow it blindly."

"It is the duty of every person to explore one's options, get a second opinion and be informed," agrees Dr. Aniruddha Malpani, infertility specialist and medical director of the Health Education Library for People (HELP), now online at "Being well-informed allows patients to become partners in their medical care. I feel patients should become experts on their problem, so that they retain control over their lives rather than hand it over to their doctor."

HELP, India's first patient education library, started in 1996 to teach patients about their medical problems. With the advent of the Internet in India, Dr Malpani decided to put the information contained in the library online. Over the years, he has been adding to the information, and Health now has over 20 textbooks on varied medical topics, a searchable database of doctors in India and an archive of health news. On an average, it gets 50,000 hits from 3000 visitors daily, a number that has gone up about five times in the last two years, according to Dr. Malpani.

While hits have increased, Dr. Krishnamurthy also finds an increase in knowledge about disabilities and disorders among her patients over the last few years. "Information about the disorders I treat is not easily available, so the Internet is a good place to start research," she says. "Most of my patients look for specific information on tests, treatment, hospitals and research. For instance, a disorder I often treat, called Fragile X Syndrome, is featured online and many turn there for information."

Dr. Krishnamurthy also visits sites for updates on treatments. "I look at for general information. For specific disorders, I visit the Autism Society of America, the National Centre for Learning Disabilities and the American Academy of Paediatrics. I also recommend the site for Children and Adults with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity Disorder  to some of my patients." Interestingly, the Internet has actually helped over ten families contact Dr. Krishnamurthy through articles and links that mentioned her name.

In India, where a doctor is often equated with god and whose diagnosis is the last word on disease, the Internet has opened up a world of information, empowering patients to take control of their own lives and be responsible for their treatment. And while virtual medical care is part of the distant future, patients now have the ability to seek solutions themselves. As Vinta says, "There's no substitute for the actual faith you have in your doctor, but having access to the latest research allows me to make an informed decision fully aware of the risks involved."

Gopika Vaidya Kapoor