AMA takes on Web – Ethics of health sites at issue

As more patients turn to the Internet for medical information, the American Medical Association is revamping its Internet guidelines to protect consumers from misleading information or breaches of confidentiality online, the Associated Press reports.

Ethical lapses on medical Web sites pose more dangers than other Internet sites, says Dr. Margaret Winkler, deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The new guidelines emphasize informed consent, privacy and confidentiality as absolute tenets of online medical assistance.

The guidelines will apply to all sites run by the AMA – and policy authors hope private sites will adopt them as well, AP says.

Health sites could violate privacy by tracking visitors, say the guidelines, which require that sites obtain consent before collecting personal information. 

To assist visitors in distinguishing between medical information and advertisements, the new guidelines prohibit juxt#39ing ads and medical articles on the same topic.

Sites also are required to disclose such outside affiliations as an author’s stake in the company that makes a drug mentioned in the article.

Last year, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was criticized for failing to disclose sponsors of his Web site who paid him commission on products he sold online. 

A coalition of industry, academics and patients groups that finds the AMA’s guidelines impractical has convened to establish a separate ethics code.

Dr. Helga Rippen, chair of the coalition, says she believes the AMA matches her group’s intent, but that its guidelines are too elaborate to be practical for all Web sites.

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