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Doctors have Rx for peace of mind

Physicians, eager to combat misinformation on the Web, will direct patients to more reputable sites.

Published February 16, 2005

DUNEDIN - Patients come in asking for costly vitamins never proven to help.

Some swear they have cancer. Others demand drugs they're sure will cure them.

They read it on the Internet so it must be right, they tell their doctors.

But is it?

Some of the nation's leading doctors are fighting back against what they say is rampant misinformation on the Internet. Nearly 4,000 doctors in six Florida counties - Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Sarasota, Manatee and Collier - are joining in a national pilot project called "Information Rx" to send people to more reputable Web sites.

"The challenge about the Internet is to know what information is good, and what information is not good," said Winter Park internist Dr. Cecil Wilson, a trustee of the American Medical Association, at Monday's announcement of the new program.

When his patients come in with Web site information, Wilson said, at least half the time it's from a source he has never heard of.

Doctors in the project will write "prescriptions" for two Web sites where their patients can get more information.

The first, is the Web site for the U.S. National Library of Medicine, an arm of the National Institutes of Health. The second, is the Web site for the Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation. The project is sponsored by those two groups and the AMA Foundation.

Pilot programs also are under way in Iowa, Georgia and Virginia.

The project is a sign of how much medical views have changed, said Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg, director of the National Library of Medicine. When Lindberg was a student 40 years ago, doctors often believed it best to keep patients in the dark.

"In those days, we would have serious discussions," he said. "Should the patient be told?"

Now, most doctors want patients to know more. They are becoming more concerned about patients who lack "health literacy" - such skills as taking prescribed drugs correctly or understanding medical test results. A recent study said more than 90-million Americans fall short.

But doctors often can't or don't answer everything in a brief visit.

"We all know how busy these doctors are," said Mary Asta, vice president and chief operating officer of the Fisher Center Foundation. "And how when we leave, we say, "I wished I'd asked that question."'

Six years ago, Emerson Moran's wife, Pat, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. As they struggled to cope with her decline, they also had trouble finding out what the disease would bring and where to find help.

"Our reality is as cold and as harsh as it gets, because Alzheimer's is a death sentence," Emerson Moran said. "When we were handed our death sentence, we were left pretty much in the dark."

With few answers from doctors, the couple found themselves in bookstores, asking clerks what books might be most helpful. At least at first, Moran said, Pat Moran's doctors didn't tell them enough - "almost like they were afraid of bearing the bad news themselves."

These days, Moran, who came to Dunedin on Monday from his home in Palm Beach Gardens, has found a center to care for Pat each day. And he's using the Fisher Center's Web site to get practical advice that makes caring for his wife easier. Just the other day, he said, the site suggested using brightly colored plates to help patients focus on their food.

"Information is just about the only antidote" to the fears and trauma of living with Alzheimer's, Moran said.

Dr. Dennis Agliano, president of the Florida Medical Association, wrote the Florida project's first "information prescription" Monday to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, who confessed that he doesn't know much about the Internet.

Agliano and other doctors at Monday's event said patients often are led astray by commercial sites that tout suspect claims because they're peddling drugs, vitamins or supplements. At other times, patients use the Web to search for a diagnosis before seeing a doctor.

"Say you have a mass in your neck," said Agliano, a Tampa otolaryngologist/head and neck surgeon. "They're mostly benign. But right away, people think, "I've got cancer."

[Last modified February 16, 2005, 01:20:12]

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