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AUGUST 11 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 31 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

The e-Doctor is now in
Healthcare websites are popping up all over Asia. Just be sure to take their advice with a dose of common sense
By YASMIN GHAHREMANI

The first thing Pamela Ip felt when she found out she was pregnant was joy. Then came the apprehension. "There are so many things that can happen in the first few months," says the 31-year-old managing director of financial website Stockhouse.com. She had too many questions for her doctor to answer so she turned to the Net. Now six months into her pregnancy, she logs in daily to CWOW, a Chinese women's site that gives a week-by-week description of the pregnancy process and health tips. "You can get information from books but it may be a couple of years old," she says. "I almost trust a site more because I know they have the most up-to-date information."

More and more people like Ip are taking control of their health by educating themselves through the Internet. In a recent U.S. survey by Gomez Advisers, 77% of Internet users said they had searched for medical information online. They probably didn't have to look very hard. Thousands of health websites populate the Net. Among them are dozens of portals that have cropped up recently, catering specifically to Asians. The good ones have the potential to change forever the traditional doctor-as-God role, which too often leaves the patient in the dark. "There's a great benefit in increasing the amount of communication," says Hans Schraeder, a general practitioner in Hong Kong.

General health portals are often a good place to start. Hong Kong's ehealthcareasia.com, Singapore's ezyhealth.com and Manila-based DrGeorge.com offer searchable databases of information, locally-tailored health news, directories of practitioners, links to support groups, and perhaps most importantly, the chance to communicate with doctors for free. DrGeorge.com has 19 doctors manning its chatroom around the clock. "Bedside manner counts," says founder Eros Kan. "We had one case where a woman said she wanted to hurt herself. Our doctor stayed with her for four hours until she felt better." Healthcare2u.com, a Hong Kong Chinese-language portal, even allows some mobile phone users to call in and speak to a doctor.

Emergencies of course demand live care. But sometimes people don't realize how much danger they're in. "Once someone came in asking for first aid for electric burns," says Dr. Jennifer Yang, a chat consultant at DrGeorge.com. "Her brother was in a tree cutting dead branches and had touched a live wire. We told her there was no first aid that could be done at home, and the patient should be brought to the emergency room right away."

If you're interested in traditional Chinese medicine, sites like TCM Cyberport and SinoMD are good for learning about basic theory and remedies. You can also buy medicinal herbs from them online. Most of the "modern medicine" portals cover traditional treatments too. Hong Kong secretary Serina Tong logged into a Chinese-medicine chat session at ehealthcareasia.com to ask about treatments for her father's lung cancer. She believes the herbs recommended have prolonged her father's life. "The doctors at the hospital told us he had only six months to live," she says. "But it's already been one year and he is still alive."

The danger of online health advice is that there is no quality control. Schraeder recommends only frequenting portals backed by licensed doctors. Also watch out for hidden agendas. Tong says one medical chat room she joined kept trying to sell her insurance.

Without a physical exam, online doctors can't give more than limited advice, which is only as accurate as the information they receive. "If [the patient] used the wrong terms to describe the symptoms, we might get a different initial impression from what he really has," says Yang. Most ethical physicians won't diagnose online. And organizations like the Hong Kong Medical Council forbid it in most cases.

Internet information is best used as a supplement to doctor visits. And like most supplements, it's a good idea not to overdose on them.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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