Site founded in Canada wins accolades

Concerns over lack of privacy and security on the Internet have been one of the biggest stumbling blocks to e-commerce.

These issues are especially important where medical information is concerned. So Ltd., which won Internet World Canada 2000’s Site of the Year and Changing the Way People Communicate awards, takes a lot of steps to ensure the privacy of its users. Originally based in Toronto, the site now operates out of the U.S. and offers medical information to people who have been diagnosed with illnesses. The writers at – a team made up largely of ex-emergency room nurses – take peer-reviewed articles that have been printed in recognized scientific journals, strip out the technical jargon and re-gear them for the everyday reader.

The site also has more interactive offerings, such as the Mind Health Tracker, a test aimed at looking for signs of depression, which patients who have been diagnosed with the disease are encouraged to fill out periodically to track their progress. Patients can take the test without registering, or they can fill out a registration form that will let the site automatically track their progress.

The thought of placing such personal information on the Internet may scare off some users, but president Ian Sutcliffe in Toronto insists the company has taken every step to ensure user privacy.

“We’ve taken a highroad on privacy. We’ve tried to be an industry leader and really protect the needs of our patients,” Sutcliffe said.

The company has printed its privacy policy on its site, and it can be accessed from any page on the site, so users know exactly where they stand.

“We have a segregation of duties. Most people on the site in the company, including myself, can’t get access to any of the detailed records people leave behind. Only the chief medical officer on the medical staff can access that information. Any personal information that has a name attached to it, we keep off-site, and only keep it on-line through a numerical identifier,” Sutcliffe said.

But Mediconsult didn’t feel that even these measures were enough, so periodically it has independent third-party companies, such as IBM, come in and audit the company’s privacy and security procedures.

But considering all the steps that Mediconsult takes, it was surprising to see the site downloading an ad from DoubleClick, a company infamous for collecting consumer profiles.

“We used to use DoubleClick to serve our ads and DoubleClick made an acquisition late last year with a company (Abacus Direct) that will allow them to match third party database information with information gleaned from our Web site. And when they did that, we cancelled our arrangement with DoubleClick,” Sutcliffe said.

Although Mediconsult doesn’t use DoubleClick’s Abacus service, it is still in the process of phasing out the company’s DART service, which it still has contractual obligations to use.

“The DART service is, in fact, in compliance with our standards on privacy. But there’s a perception among the public that because of the Abacus application, it’s possible with them to connect to information. We discuss the DoubleClick problem in our privacy statement,” Sutcliffe said.

The site was launched in the summer of 1996 with just 10 medical condition centres and now has over 60.

“Many health sites are like a magazine. Ours is like an environment, a destination,” Sutcliffe said.

The site, which attracts over 400,000 Canadian visitors a month, also hosts discussion groups on various medical topics that are monitored by professionals. Visitors to the site return an average of 2.8 times per month.

Once a user types in a keyword, such as arthritis, the whole site turns into an arthritis resource centre. The buttons leading to discussion groups, the medical dictionary and the drug information all instantly connect to the user’s topic of choice.

“This is very, very helpful for patients, because very often they forget how to spell a drug – now they can just go down the list of arthritic drugs,” Sutcliffe said.

The site also keeps track of the top 10 words that bring up a non-response from the system. Patients often spell words, such as cholesterol, incorrectly. Mediconsult then updates their system, so when a user types a word incorrectly, the system accesses a table, locates the right word and then takes the user to the correct area.