Doc-Talk Medical Answer Line Launches for Consumers

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After 17 years of providing medical advice over the telephone to ship personnel in the travel and maritime industry, Medical Advisory Systems will launch its first direct-to-consumer medical information hotline at the end of this month.

As pharmaceutical direct-to-consumer advertising on television is becoming the norm, and consumers are increasingly bombarded with drug- and health-related messages in a variety of media, the new 24-hour service, Doc-Talk, is meant to be a resource for consumers who want to sort out information and stay informed about their choices. Unlike the company's maritime and travel telemedicine operations, the hotline will not provide medical advice, only general medical information.

"A huge percentage of the population has a thirst for medical information," said Dale Hutchins, Ph.D., executive vice president of Medical Advisory Systems, Owings, MD. "In the old days the mystique was that you went to the doctor and the doctor was all-knowing, and you kept your mouth shut and listened to what he had to say. Now, when people go to the doctor, they make sure they understand what the doctor is saying. People want medical information so they can go to doctors armed and get answers when they need them."

The service - staffed by internists, pediatricians, obstetrician/gynecologists, family practitioners, and pharmacists - will answer questions about different types of diseases and conditions, symptoms and long-term effects, the cures and treatments available, the uses and side effects of medication, and other informational questions, but will not offer diagnoses.

"An example of the type of question we might get is 'I was just put on this medication. What does it do?'" said Hutchins. "Another example might be if a family member is diagnosed with something and you want to find out what it is."

The distinction between advice and information is stressed in the training program that the medical personnel undergo prior to taking the phone as agents.

"We spend a lot of time making sure they are comfortable with the fact that this is not medical advice they are giving. It is general information," said Hutchins. "We spend a lot of time on talking skills and teaching them how to build a rapport with callers, but making sure they understand this is not a physician-patient relationship, it's a different kind of rapport."

Training also includes familiarizing agents with available resources and how to retrieve information from them. In addition to their own medical backgrounds and those of colleagues, available resources include collections of network-based and Internet-based information.

There is also a librarian specialist who keeps abreast of medical news and compiles reports on the latest products and topics of discussion. News such as talk-show host Montel Williams' recent announcement he has multiple sclerosis may spark a rise in questions about the disease, noted Hutchins. The librarian compiles information on these types of issues as soon as they break.

While calls are anonymous, callers may provide their names, addresses or phone numbers if agents do not have information at their fingertips and wants to call or send further information later.

Managers walk the rows of call stations at the center to observe agents and calls are monitored for quality-assurance purposes.

The exact number of agents staffing the line has not been determined, but the company has a pool of 142 medical professionals from its other two divisions to draw from. Medical Advisory Systems' other divisions - the maritime/travel division and a DTC medical Web chat the company provides for the Web site - are separate from Doc-Talk, but some employees are being cross-trained and may work part-time for two services.

The company hopes to attract customers to the hotline through Web advertising on health-related Web sites. Later, it plans to form partnerships with associations that would offer the service to their members. Eventually, the company aims to launch media advertising, and possible sponsorships of health-related programming.

The hotline will initially be accessible by an 800 number, which has not yet been released. Customers calling into the toll-free number will pay for the service through credit card. As partnerships are formed with associations, 900 numbers are also expected to be introduced. The cost of the service has not yet been released.

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