Five years after the Internet entered public consciousness, the NHS is taking action to guide patients to use it wisely. Part of the NHS information strategy is a project to accredit information.
The man in charge, Bob Gann, director of the NHS Centre for Health Information Quality, admits this is a tall order. 'We're really going to have to start monitoring.'
The centre opened last November at the old Wessex regional health authority headquarters in Winchester. Its first online project, carried out with the Health Education Authority, is looking at ways to evaluate Internet sites aimed at young people.
The centre's process of accrediting printed information looks at three criteria: quality of communications, quality of contents and evidence base, and the quality of patients' involvement. Mr Gann says it will try to apply the same criteria to Internet material. He says he is 'anticipating' a big boost in resources following the strategy, but that no individual organisation will ever be big enough to vet the Internet on its own. 'We will probably end up as the clearing house for a network of specialist accreditors,' he says. This network itself would meet across the Internet in an 'invisible college'.
Under the strategy, patients will access this accredited information by going through a 'national gateway' site.
The proposed gateway will work along the lines of a similar site in the US, called Healthfinder. This government-funded site offers authoritative factsheets on diseases and health issues. More detailed medical information is also available through the National Library of Medicine's Medline service, which vice-president Al Gore officially laid open to the public in June last year. He enthused about the benefits of allowing access. 'Better and more up-to-date information in the hands of consumers means we can treat diseases more quickly and maybe prevent some of them in the first place.'