CAMLAW: Complementary and Alternative Medicine Law Blog

Web-based medicine through online health information

Entrepreneurs increasingly are putting together health websites hoping to draw consumers into creating 'on-line dashboards' of their health profiles.

The Wall Street Journal reported on this phenomenon in "The Doctor's Office Gets Crowded on the Web."

WSJ noted:

'While every service imaginable seems to have found a way to thrive on the Web, health has always lagged. But things are heating up, as an Internet billionaire is about to launch a site of his own and an online-health pioneer is changing its services to meet the challenge.

'Steve Case, who brought the Internet into millions of homes and then ushered America Online through an ill-conceived merger with Time Warner, is wagering tens of millions of dollars that consumers will eventually pay about $100 a year to subscribe to premium services on his Web site. He believes that as Americans are forced to bear more of the cost of their health insurance they'll want a site that digitally stores their medical records and provides telephone services that coaches them about their health, matches them with doctors and helps them unsnarl insurance claims.

'In launching RevolutionHealth.com today, Mr. Case says he aims to transform a "broken industry by putting health care back into the hands of the consumer." Skeptics, however, say his site -- which will start off free, but eventually begin charging for premium services -- may have trouble surviving, much less achieving Mr. Case's goal of remaking the health-care system.

Mr. Case faces not only the challenge of changing an industry that is both highly fragmented and deeply entrenched, but he also faces heightened competition right off the bat from the most-successful health site on the Internet. Also today, WebMD -- a company that nearly died more than once on its decadelong path to profitability -- is announcing a revamped site with new tools that match some of those offered by RevolutionHealth.com. WebMD users will now be able to personalize the site to a greater extent: storing and maintaining health records (which it will now make free), as well as joining forums specific to their health concerns.'

The article does not address legal issues, such as the fine line between practicing medicine (typically defined in terms of diagnosis and treatment), and offering health information.

In one case, State v. Hinze (Nebraska), a pharmacist gave a talk, in which the pharmacist solicited informaiton on participants' ailments, suggested specific remedies, and used the title 'doctor' without explaining his educational background. The Nebraska Supreme Court found the pharmacist guilty of practicing medicine without a license, and rejected the pharmacist's contention that he was merely exercising his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

Many sites avoid the possibility of a 'practice of medicine' label by avoiding answering direct questions by consumers.

However, WSJ reports that: 'EverydayHealth.com, drew five million unique users in its first month. Its founders say they aim for the free site to be "WebMD-lite," providing simplified information, though it, too, will be revamped this year to offer more personalized services, such as forums and Web logs.' Further: 'A main idea behind Revolution is that Americans' health-care experience can be packaged under one brand.'

There are also telemedicine issues to consider. It remains to be seen whether the health care 'one-stop shop' on-line will arrive. Notes WSJ: 'Revolution will offer the standard elements of health-related Web sites free, such as disease information and articles and forums, but is hoping to break away from the pack through its paid telephone services.' But it will probably have to walk the fine line between more generic health information, and the kind of personalized health attention that call fall into prohibitions against either unlicensed practice of medicine, or corporate practice of medicine.

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Law Offices of Michael H. Cohen offers general corporate legal services, litigation consultation, and expertise in health law with a unique focus on alternative, complementary, and integrative medical therapies.

Michael H. Cohen is Principal in Law Offices of Michael H. Cohen and also President of the Institute for Integrative and Energy Medicine (also known as the Institute for Health, Ethics, Law, Policy & Society), a forum for exploration of legal, regulatory, ethical, and health policy issues involved in the judicious integration of complementary and alternative medical therapies (such as acupuncture and traditional oriental medicine, chiropractic, massage therapy, herbal medicine) and conventional clinical care. The most recent published book by Michael H. Cohen on health care law, regulation, ethics and policy pertaining to complementary, alternative and integrative medicine and related fields is Healing at the Borderland of Medicine and Religion. This is the fourth book in a series, following Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Legal Boundaries and Regulatory Perspectives (1998), Beyond Complementary Medicine: Legal and Ethical Perspectives on Health Care and Human Evolution (2000), and Future Medicine: Ethical Dilemmas, Regulatory Challenges, and Therapeutic Pathways to Health Care and Healing in Human Transformation (2003).

Health care and corporate lawyer Michael H. Cohen has also been admitted to the Bar of England and Wales as a Solicitor (non-practicing), adding to Bar membership in four U.S. states.
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