Pediatric neurologists frequently see patients who have a confusing array of symptoms resulting from rare disorders and diseases. Until now, the only recourse for the doctors has been to make a beeline for the literature, and when that fails to illuminate, to call another expert who might have seen a similar case. And still, they often come up empty-handed.
Now these physicians can look to the Internet for expertise. Reasoning that many opinions are better than one, U-M pediatric neurologist Steven M. Leber and Ken Mack, a pediatric neurologist at the University of Wisconsin, have teamed up to start an e-mail network for pediatric neurologists who want to consult more easily with colleagues and share knowledge and medical advice. A sort of grand rounds in cyberspace, the network is used by more than 275 physicians both in this country and abroad who access it through a mail server located at the University of Wisconsin.
You type in a description of a case on your computer and it goes to experts all over the country, Leber says. Its reassuring for parents when you can say, Im not sure whats wrong with your child, but Im going to discuss it with 275 of my colleagues later this afternoon.
Leber says the network is useful not only for narrowing down diagnoses, but also for advertising studies that need patients and locating family support groups for a specific disease. The system also is a pipeline for information about the pros and cons of the latest drugs. For example, last year it was becoming apparent that a new anticonvulsant drug, Felbatol, was causing dangerous side effects in patients. Even before national warnings were issued, word about the drug spread quickly through the network.
While the network currently operates via mail server, a World Wide Web site soon will be established that will allow both a bulletin board-like function and links to many other Internet sites related to pediatrics, neurology and general medicine. While access to the system is restricted to physicians and scientists, Leber and Mack recently established a parallel network for parents of children with neurological problems.
Leber expects that soon all subspecialists will have their own meeting place on the Internetpediatric psychiatrists and adult neurologists also are among those now taking advantage of the technologyand that the phenomenon will add a new dimension to medical practice, benefiting patients worldwide. After all, he says, its so easy to set up and so useful, why not do it?