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Changing Their Role

By mixing celebrity and cyberspace, some high-profile doctors are redefining the way medicine is practiced and promoted.

January 24, 2000|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Not that long ago, doctors who advertised their services risked ridicule in the conservative profession.

Even in this age of self-promoting cosmetic surgeons and laser eye doctors, many physicians still consider such behavior beneath them. But a new breed of high-profile doctors is combining celebrity with cyberspace to change the way medicine is practiced and promoted.

Known as "celebrity e-docs," these physicians are using their fame--built through bestselling books, TV shows and the lecture circuit--to launch Internet sites that are part online clinic and part marketing tool.

"This is a major and important trend in health care," says Tom Ferguson, a Harvard Medical School lecturer who has written frequently on the convergence of medicine and the Internet. "I call it the unbundling of the physician's role."

Instead of keeping within the traditional confines of the clinic and, perhaps, the pages of a book, celebrity e-docs, says Ferguson, are putting themselves "out there" for patients in a bold--and experimental--way.

Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and alternative health pioneers Drs. Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra were among the first to establish Web sites in their names. But more physicians are flocking to the medium. Within the last few months, Dr. Susan Love, the breast cancer expert, and Dr. Drew Pinsky, co-host of the popular "Love-line" talk show on MTV and KROQ-FM (106.7), have launched their own Web sites. Dr. Barry Sears, author of the bestselling "Zone" diet book series, plans to launch his own site soon.

Other well-known doctors have captured spots on Web sites sponsored by others. Nancy Snyderman, a medical correspondent for ABC and an otolaryngologist at UC San Francisco, is featured on Koop's page. Dr. Bernie Siegel, a popular author and lecturer on mind-body medicine, and sex expert Ruth Westheimer have a presence on Weil's page. Dr. Dean Edell, the syndicated radio host and TV medical reporter, can be found at Healthcentral.com (http://www.healthcentral.com).

These e-docs are exploring new ways to dispense medical advice and information that is timely and allows for direct communication between patient and doctor. Many observers believe the development has great potential to educate patients and enhance medical care.

But doctors with Web sites bearing their names must balance the delicate issues of professional responsibility and personal aggrandizement. As they aim to develop successful Internet businesses--and, potentially, create enormous personal wealth--they must strive to maintain their reputations as responsible advocates for health.

The cost of starting up a Web site capable of handling a respectable 1 million hits a day can reach $5 million to $10 million or more, according to Ferguson. Thus, it is necessary for these doctors to seek out corporate or private investors willing to cover most of the expense in hopes of a handsome profit down the road.

DrWeil.com (http://www.drweil.com), for example, is owned and operated by publishing giant Time Inc., which pays Weil a flat fee, said Steven Petrow, the site's executive editor. Koop launched his site with investors, and when the company went public in 1999, Koop's stake in the venture was valued at more than $55 million. (The Internet company's stock price--and the value of Koop's holdings--have since fallen.) But the headlines generated by the public offering no doubt caught the attention of other celebrity docs who were mulling their prospects on the Web.

Some Raise Money; Others, Just Visibility

While some physicians may view their Web sites as potentially lucrative investments, their motives vary. Chopra's site, for example, is largely used as a promotional vehicle for his ever-expanding empire of books, tapes and seminars. He earns no income from advertisements or sponsors on the site.

Other doctors say they merely hope to break even with their Web sites but see the Internet as a way to enhance their authority and visibility in their respective fields.

"I think some doctors would like to be able to [make millions, as Koop did]," Ferguson says. "But it's not easy to do that. Whether you can make money is very uncertain."

To pay the bills, however, some of these medical Web sites accept advertising, sponsorships or sell products--activities not usually associated with the practice of medicine.

"I think physicians need to be part of this [Internet] world," said Pinsky, a Los Angeles internist who inaugurated his site in October after a friend convinced him that he could continue to reach his target audience--young adults--via the Web.

"But I also think physicians need to be careful to be in the driver's seat," he added. "I don't think they can let businesspeople be in the driver's seat."

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