Plain Dealer Reporter
MetroHealth Medical Center plans to offer advice from cyberspace.
Starting Monday, MetroHealth nurses will dispense health tips, medical referrals and information on specific medicines for free. They will use the Cleveland Public Library's KnowItNow Web site, which since June has offered 24-hour access to librarians for anyone within the library's region. The two Cleveland institutions hope teenagers, among others, will use online nurses to anonymously seek out credible information instead of looking to chat rooms or questionably sourced Web sites.
But the MetroHealth site may not meet the evolving standards on Internet privacy and security established by the medical community. The Web site doesn't use a secure Internet connection, which is one of the reasons nurses won't discuss specific medical information online.
"If we were giving patient-spe- cific information, then we're talking about a whole different scenario," said Vince Miller, vice president and chief information officer at MetroHealth. "We're going to answer general information you would be going to the library for."
KnowItNow librarians will connect users with complex medical questions to nurses who also staff MetroHealth Line, the hospital's free call-in service.
Someone inquiring about skin cancer, for example, would be passed to a MetroHealth nurse who could describe and produce photos of melanomas, said Tracy Strobel, who runs KnowItNow for the Cleveland Public Library.
The library and hospital have discreetly tested the process since October. Nurses have handled about 80 to 100 online inquiries since then, Miller said.
Strobel said the library will publicize the service on its Web sites but also in a series of new youth-oriented posters distributed "wherever young people are."
She hopes younger generations, who rely heavily on the Internet for information, will use the resource for information about sexual health and other private concerns.
"I think we'd rather have nurses helping them than their buddies in a chat room," said Strobel.
Some medical Web sites are created by credible experts, but others are "total fabrications," said Dr. Peter J. Plantes, medical director for LaurusHealth, which helps consumers make more-informed health-care decisions.
Recent guidelines from groups such as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission include using a secure Internet connection, said Plantes, who worked at MetroHealth from 1992 to 1996. Secure connections - denoted by "https" in the Web address - better protect private information shared online.
Miller, of MetroHealth, said users are protected because they log on anonymously - revealing only a ZIP code to certify that they are in the Web site's coverage area.
Also, the Web site includes a 400-word disclaimer warning users that the Web site is not secure, that information shared shouldn't take the place of a doctor's advice and not to reveal specific medical information, among other things.
If users start revealing specific health information about themselves, nurses will ask them to call instead, Miller said.
"It provides us an opportunity to be responsive to people's immediate needs and put information online to help people help themselves," said Terrell Cole, education liaison to Mayor Jane Campbell, who will ask a ceremonial question of nurses at a news conference Monday.
Contact Chris Seper at: firstname.lastname@example.org