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Physicians' Web Site To Launch

Seeking to give patients more reliable online health news and advice, the nation's leading physician groups are starting their own consumer information Internet site.

The American Medical Association and six other physician groups early next year will launch medem.com, an effort to combat fears that patients are getting inaccurate and misleading information over the Internet.

But with the unfamiliar name of medem.com, its relatively late arrival on the Internet scene and the AMA's close connection to doctors rather than patients, the for-profit initiative will have a difficult time attracting consumers, analysts say.

Consumers have flocked online as an easy way to obtain detailed information about diseases affecting them and their family. Doctors have complained, though, about being barraged by patient queries sparked by questionable material found on the Internet.

Though medem.com will offer the same health news and information available online from sites such as drkoop.com and America Online's Health Channel, the physician groups say their credibility give them an advantage.

Medem, based in San Francisco, also hopes to attract consumers by providing a direct link to Web sites of physicians who sign up for the service. Through the link, medem.com will provide patients a secure service so patients and physicians can communicate via e-mail.

The name "medem" is short for medical empowerment, and empowering consumers with health information they can use to live healthier lives is the site's main aim.

"Medem.com will give our patients access to information they can trust and information they can use with their physicians in order to improve their health care," said Dr. H. Dunbar Hoskins Jr., chairman of the Medem board of directors and executive vice president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "We felt much of the information being delivered on the Internet was inaccurate and out of context."

Along with the AMA and the ophthalmology academy, the other groups participating are: the American Academy of Pediatrics; the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology; the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; the American Psychiatric Association; and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

The site is free for consumers, though doctors have to pay $70 per month. Doctors can have their fee covered by a sponsoring company. No sponsors have been signed up yet.

The early prognosis for medem.com looks challenging at best, according to industry analysts.

"They are facing an enormous amount of competition online that's already gone down the learning curve to acquire and retain customers," said Claudine Singer, an Internet analyst with Jupiter Communications in New York.

Art Caplan, director of the center for bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the AMA is on the right track helping doctors and patients use e-mail to comunicate. Currently, less than 2 percent of doctors use e-mail with patients, though Caplan expects the numbers to soar as doctors realize they can more efficiently help consumers by answering their questions online.

The AMA name will help attract some users to medem.com, Caplan said, though people like to seek information on the Internet because they can search a multitude of sources, all with different interests.

"The glory of the Internet is it is wide open and freewheeling, but the problem with the Internet is it is open and freewheeling," he said.