NetWellness Fields Public’s Health Queries

The Ohio State University, the University of Cincinnati and Case Western Reserve University have joined together to benefit NetWellness, a non-profit consumer health web site.

NetWellness originated in 1995 with a grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The three-university partnership recently received $750,000 in federal funding to continue providing public health information through the site.  According to Brenda Clark, OSU NetWellness program manager, the site exemplifies the benefits of partnering. “Working together, the three universities are able to maximize each other’s efforts,” says Clark.

Designed for the layperson, NetWellness offers 30,000 web pages of high-quality health information, including audio and video clips, an African American Health Center and an Ask an Expert feature.  The site also features the ADAM Health Illustrated Encyclopedia, which covers more that 1,500 medical topics in depth, providing color illustrations as well as definitions, symptoms and possible treatments of diseases.

The medical and professional health faculties of each school donate their time to create and evaluate site content.  While public agencies and corporations, including pharmaceutical companies, can become NetWellness sponsors, they do not influence the site. “Our primary concern is to ensure that information on the site is accurate,” says Clark.

Dev Pathak, DBA, interim dean of the OSU School of Public Health and OSU NetWellness director, believes the site will be an invaluable tool. “The site offers unbiased, evidence-based information,” says Pathak, adding that the information “can lead to improved health-related quality of life.”

The Ask an Expert feature is service by 200 healthcare faculty members from the three universities.  Sixty-five professionals from the OSU Medical Center, including physicians, nurses, optometrists, pharmacists, dentists, physical therapists and dietitians, volunteer their time to answer questions. Responses to queries from outside the United States consider the availability of treatments and medications in foreign countries.

“Participating physicians are not practicing medicine on the web,” cautions Clark.  NetWellness operates on a library paradigm and each expert is trained not to offer diagnosis or establish a patient/doctor relationship with site users.

Protecting the public’s privacy is also paramount.  Visitors to the site are  anonymous. Responses are posted on the NetWellness site, so others may also benefit from the information. Questions are usually answered within two or three days.

The Ohio Public Library Information Network (OPLIN) has been instrumental in building public awareness of NetWellness.  Conferences, like that of the Ohio Association of School Nurses, also serve to disseminate information about the site.  The public can also receive monthly updates on topics recently added to the site.  “Reaching out to the community and answering questions at a lay level has been key for this site,” adds Clark.

Prior surveys have shown that more women than men access the site, however user demographics were limited.  “We’ve added a new component that will enable us to obtain more meaningful feedback,” says Clark who hopes to use that information to help determine content development. Planned areas of focus include obesity and weight management and public health information on West Nile Virus and SARS.

Mindful of time demands on physicians and staff, NetWellness uses a team approach, structured around areas of expertise, to help field questions.  To date, the three participating universities have answered over 20,000 questions on topics ranging from allergies to infertility to post traumatic stress disorder.