Is it real or is it Internet?
The fact that anyone can throw anything up on the great cyber bulletin board is both its strength and its vulnerability. Lies and rumors bump elbows with facts every day, and are easily mistaken for each other.
Now Johns Hopkins is expanding its role in cyberspace by adding its expertise and credibility to a health information company available through a growing number of on-line computer services. InteliHealth--a joint venture between Johns Hopkins University and Health System and Aetna U.S. Healthcare that was founded early last year--is now available on America Online (AOL) and on a free-standing World Wide Web site ( www.intelihealth.com). The service is described by AOL as an anchor tenant for its Health Channel, where subscribers can tap into a growing body of health and medical information bearing the Hopkins imprimatur.
"For anyone who's tried to hack through the jungle of no-name health sites on the Internet, there is an obvious need for clear, accessible information from a trustworthy source," says Ron Sauder, director of the Johns Hopkins Office of Consumer Health Information. "That's the need we're in business to meet."
Sauder's office--along with a large cadre of faculty contributors and the East Baltimore public affairs offices--is producing more than a dozen original news items per week on subjects ranging from genetic testing to healthy diets. In formats that include an "Ask-the-Doc" electronic column and Q&A-style news commentaries, Hopkins experts answer questions and explain the latest research findings in language understandable by laypeople.
Now, AOL's Health Channel (keyword: InteliHealth) offers its 9 million subscribers a springboard into the Hopkins/InteliHealth on-line resources. The affiliation with AOL, says Sauder, is crucial in establishing Johns Hopkins and InteliHealth as touchstones for consumer health on the Web. "America Online is the biggest Internet service in the country--accounting for up to half of all Web traffic, according to some reports--and Hopkins has to be there."
Since the late 1980s, Johns Hopkins has been a leader in the sale of printed consumer health information, most prominently through the Johns Hopkins Health After 50 newsletter, which reaches more than 500,000 subscribers nationwide. Several years ago, Hopkins was looking for the right partner to support its entrance to the electronic publishing arena. At the same time, Hopkins officials learned that U.S. Healthcare (now part of Aetna Inc.) was considering a start-up company in the consumer health information field. Hopkins and U.S. Healthcare launched the joint venture, with the managed care company contributing the start-up funding and Hopkins the editorial content and faculty expertise.
Sauder declines to disclose exact financial arrangements with Aetna but says that Hopkins is paid royalties from InteliHealth sales. In addition, the university and its faculty are paid for their editorial services. Hopkins also holds a minority equity share in the InteliHealth venture.
InteliHealth is pursuing a number of other projects in addition to AOL, since the same material in the underlying health database can be published and distributed in a variety of ways. The nation's second-leading on-line service, CompuServe (which was recently acquired by AOL, but is operated separately), also has an area featuring Hopkins health news (GO:HOPKINS).
Still another outlet is the PointCast Network ( www.pointcast.com), which functions as a kind of Web-based clipping service, routing items of interest to individual subscribers. Sauder likens PointCast to a news channel, while AOL is more like a library with community bulletin boards, where users can exchange comments with each other and ask questions of Hopkins professionals.
Recently, InteliHealth, Perot Systems and PointCast launched the InteliHealth Professional Network for professionals in the field, with specialized information for everyone from physicians and nurses to pharmaceutical executives and benefits managers.
Coming soon this fall, InteliHealth will introduce its newest offering, a Web-based newsletter, the Johns Hopkins Health Insider, edited by a faculty team headed by David M. Paige, a professor in the School of Public Health, and associate editors David B. Hellmann, professor of medicine, and Ada R. Davis, associate professor of nursing.
And work continues on the underlying information "backbone" of the InteliHealth Web site, a series of in-depth, consumer-friendly chapters on topics ranging from pregnancy and childbirth to asthma and allergy. More than 200,000 words of original material have been posted in the Johns Hopkins Health Library, a figure that's expected to be matched annually. Many other projects are in the offing as well.
"One thing I can say with absolute confidence," says Sauder, "is that next week is always going to be surprising."