Doctors frequently prescribe medications for their patients. But what if the same patients also need up-to-date, reliable, easy-to-read information about their health? Are physicians readily equipped to refer their patients to top-notch web-based information resources?

Recognizing this need, selected Virginia members of the American College of Physicians (ACP) have teamed with the National Library of Medicine to "prescribe" health care information to their patients. The Virginia project is an outgrowth of recent pilot projects in Iowa and Georgia that enabled physicians to refer their patients to health information on MEDLINEplus.

ACP physicians will use a prescription pad to write a diagnosis like "hypertension." The prescription directs the patient to a designated MEDLINEplus website where the patient can access high quality health care information via a home or local library computer. To help get the word out to patients to use MEDLINEplus, ACP internists, members of the American Society of Internal Medicine (ASIM), receive a promotional toolkit, including posters for their exam rooms and customizable bookmarks. In addition to applying what was learned in Iowa and Georgia, the Virginia pilot will also explore how libraries can be involved in preparation for a national launch of the project in April 2004. Directors of Virginia's academic health center libraries—Linda Watson at the University of Virginia, Judith Robinson at Eastern Virginia Medical College, and Jean Shipman at Virginia Commonwealth University—have worked closely with NLM officials to initiate the project in Virginia. They coordinated a December 2003 planning meeting of statewide health sciences and public librarians to discuss the Virginia pilot project. In January, NLM sent a letter to all Virginia public and hospital libraries to advise them of the project and ask for their input.

While the ACP-ASIM Foundation project will cover all of Virginia, additional feedback will be sought from a core group of Richmond—based physicians with the assistance of Jean Shipman and her staff at the Tompkins McCaw Library for the Health Sciences, VCU Libraries. They began by encouraging VCU physicians and affiliated community preceptors to participate in the pilot through various means. Regional public librarians were contacted about the project and offered training in the use of MEDLINEplus. Similar promotional activities will be pursued around the state by librarian members of the Virginia Council of Health Sciences Librarians (VaCOHSL).

Both NLM and the ACP-ASIM Foundation consider this project to be extremely important. According to NLM Director Dr. Donald A. B. Lindberg, "Physicians have always known that an informed patient who takes an active role is a 'better' patient. We believe that both patients and their doctors will welcome this additional medical tool—good medical information—in their continuing efforts to provide good health care."

Recent research indicates that six million Americans search the Internet daily for healthcare information and nearly 70 percent of patients nationwide would pay attention to a website recommended by their physician. "Unfortunately, some patients lack the knowledge needed to find good health care information online," commented Dr. Michael Kienzle, a physician and ACP member in Iowa. "Also, they might not be able to guard against marketing schemes disguised as websites."

MEDLINEplus is a goldmine of quality health information produced by the National Library of Medicine. Health professionals and consumers alike can depend on its authoritative and up-to-date information. MEDLINEplus has detailed yet easy-to-read information on more than 600 health topics. Users have access to a medical dictionary, extensive information on prescription and nonprescription drugs, nuts-and-bolts information on symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, current news stories, research studies, clinical trials, helpful explanatory graphics and interactive audio-visual tutorials. MEDLINEplus is also available in Spanish.

The Health Information Prescription program has proved to be popular with ACP members in the pilots. According to a survey of participating internists from Iowa and Georgia, 52 percent said they were now referring more patients to the web for health-related information. While 59 percent of those doctors referred patients to other websites before the pilot program, 92 percent now send patients to MEDLINEplus.

Despite concerns about lack of familiarity with computers, physicians in Iowa reported good experiences working with the indigent and the elderly. They found that many patients were interested and able to get information despite not having computer experience, which dispelled the preconceived notions that older and indigent patients don't have access to or the educational background to use the Internet.

For more information about Virginia's participation in the project, visit the VaCOHSL webpage at or contact Linda Watson at , Jean Shipman at or Judith Robinson at .

Karen Dillon manages the Health Sciences Libraries for the Carilion Health System in Roanoke.