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Medpedia Project to create body of health knowledge

Internet entrepreneurs are teaming with medical experts on an online encyclopedia.

July 23, 2008|Jessica Guynn | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Internet entrepreneurs are teaming with doctors, researchers and other medical professionals to create what they hope will be the Web's largest body of health information.

Modeled on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, but written and edited only by trained professionals, the Medpedia Project will gather the kind of knowledge usually confined to academic circles and make it understandable and available to consumers.

"This is the most novel effort I am aware of to fill this need that really does exist out there, to develop a mechanism for medical experts and patients and families to interact," said Joseph B. Martin, former dean of the medical schools at Harvard University and UC San Francisco who is serving as an advisor to Medpedia.

The website will be officially launched at year's end. A preview site can be found at www.medpedia.com.

It is one in a growing number of efforts to bring healthcare into the 21st century. As the push to use technology to empower patients gains momentum, healthcare providers and Internet companies are experimenting with online tools.

Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. offer health services that allow consumers to manage their medical records and receive health advice online. Websites such as Healthline, Revolution Health and WebMD provide information about diseases and treatment options. There are specialized search engines, online patient support groups and rating sites for doctors and hospitals.

Yet many online users get frustrated sifting through all of the results when researching health issues online.

"Medicine is one of the least developed areas of the Internet, and at the same time one of the areas that can be most improved by the Internet," said James Currier, founder and chairman of Medpedia.

The concept has generated support from prominent members of the medical establishment.

Physicians, medical schools, hospitals, health organizations and public health professionals have signed on to assist in building Medpedia's comprehensive medical clearinghouse. Among them are Harvard Medical School, Stanford School of Medicine and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

Others, such as the University of Michigan Medical School, will encourage their faculty to edit Medpedia. The site will also receive content from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, and it's exploring the possibility of providing information on clinical trials for various diseases and conditions.

Over the next few years, Currier said, Medpedia plans to recruit thousands of health experts to create Web pages for more than 30,000 diseases and conditions, more than 10,000 prescription drugs, thousands of medical procedures and millions of medical facilities around the world.

That's a far cry from the 1,000 pages that Medpedia currently has. The task presents a significant challenge given the demands of the profession and the reluctance of some to embrace the Internet as an alternative means of helping patients and advancing scientific knowledge.

"I view this as a leading-edge way to do something I have wanted to do my whole life, which is help people have information so they can craft their own future," said Linda Hawes Clever, a UC San Francisco clinical professor who is advising Medpedia.

Although online tools can help patients take charge of their own care, reduce costs and prevent medical errors, they also carry risks. Wikipedia, which uses an army of volunteers writing on a variety of topics, has had its share of controversies concerning the reliability of its experts.

Currier hopes to avoid such problems by putting safeguards in place. Chief among them: Only licensed medical professionals and organizations in good standing who are rigorously screened will be approved to provide and edit information.

"One of the big problems with medical information on the Web is the qualifications of the people providing it," technology consultant Rob Enderle said. "The Web is not exactly a trusted place for medical information right now. A service that could provide a variety of credible medical information could be very useful."

Main topic pages will be easy for laypeople to understand. Professionals will discuss the topics in more clinical terms on technical pages.

Currier, an Internet industry veteran, runs Ooga Labs, a San Francisco technology incubator that is funding Medpedia. A father of four, he said he was driven to create Medpedia after spending long nights researching his children's symptoms online. Another high-profile technology figure, Mitch Kapor, is an advisor.

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jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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