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November 20, 1999
Life-Saving Info A Few Clicks Away
R S Shankar
This should not happen to anyone but imagine this:
You are traveling in Alaska when a truck runs you down, knocks you unconscious and sends you off to hospital. The doctors do not know whether you have diabetics or you are taking medication for epilepsy.
"There have been many times in the Emergency Room and faced with an unconscious patient, one desperately wishes one had access to the medical records, to EKG and X-Rays of the patient," says Dr Navin Shah. "Often there are no friends or relatives or family members of the patient is around, even to give some basic information."
Now, imagine this:
You are carrying a PersonalMD-issued card that allows a doctor to know your medical history, even while you are unconscious, with a click of a mouse.
"What we offer is a seemingly simple service but that has big implication for patients and doctors worldwide," says Sajeev Vipani, one of the founders of the free web service, PersonalMD.com.
Officially launched in July, the start-up firm has received the attention of major publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and the Boston Globe.
Launched by NeoTrax, a California firm, PersonalMD allows people to store vital health data that physicians can get to via the Internet or fax machine. It also encourages users to create their own health page where they can get medical information connected to their health problems.
Among the many things PersonalMD is doing one feature that has gained it the best attention.
PersonalMD.com is the first site of its kind to allow users to store their medical information into a secure database free of charge. Their service, the PersonalMD Emergency Card, is being called the next step in health-related Internet technology. After entering your medical information into the secure server, PersonalMD.com sends you your ER card in the mail.
"We are not offering innovative medical service," says Vipani. "We also assure and guarantee that the information stored in zealously guarded. For this is indeed a big fear across the world."
Thanks to encryption and other precautions, "even our own employees don't have access to that data," Vipani says, adding that only the founders have the access. "And for us it is a matter of life and death that such privacy is maintained. We are paranoid about privacy."
Dr William LeRoy Heinrichs, professor emeritus at Stanford University School of Medicine and an adviser to NeoTrax, says the free web service fills an important gap when it comes to caring for unfamiliar patients. Besides data on blood type and insulin use, the site can hold information on a person's medications. That knowledge can prevent a doctor from prescribing a drug that creates a harmful mix in the body, and it's more than someone can wear on their wrist.
"You can't list all this stuff on a little bracelet," he adds.
Here is how PersonalMD-ER, works: you type in your health conditions, allergies, medications and other information at the website. After verifying your identity, NeoTrax sends you a wallet-size card with a special code. The company says emergency medical personnel throughout the Western world and many other countries know to look for health information such as the card, which will lead them to your personal file.
PersonalMD.com also provides health news tailored to the users' interests, information on a variety of drugs and ailments, chat rooms and occasional webcast seminars by physicians such as Heinrichs. It offers many health-related articles accessible to any visitor. There are a number of alternative medicine articles too.
It also offers scheduled chats pertaining to specific topics, message boards, a drug database, health encyclopedia, and a medical dictionary. A simple search of the word "Breast Cancer" on the site turns up more than 200 pages pertaining to that topic.
PersonalMD.Com, which has received about $ 4.5 million from venture capitalists, was founded by Suresh Challa, Raj Suryadevera and Vipani, who coincidentally are from Andhra Pradesh. Challa is 38, Vipani 39 and Suryadevera is in his mid 20s.
Challa, president of the company, like his co-founders, has had a colorful career.
Challa, who has a graduate degree in engineering from the University of Texas, worked at National Semiconductors before launching Asian Coffee, which became the first Indian firm to export instant coffee to America. The $ 10 million firm was acquired by the Tatas.
But nothing of what he has done in the past decade and half excites him more than his current venture.
Challa loves to tell the real life story of a PersonalMD user in the Midwest who had gone for a eye check-up and suffered a heart attack. He was able to get immediate and meaningful treatment because his PersonalMD card gave the physicians exact information about his health.
Vipani says there are over 70,000 PersonalMD card carrying members.
But the numbers are bound to grow significantly as the word of mouth spreads and more publications such as The Wall Street Journal write about the service. The online medical audience is growing in millions.
Last year alone, 25 million people went online to get health and medical information, and that number is expected to rise to 33 million people by the end of 2000.
While Johns Hopkins and Mayo Clinic have embraced the online technology, the new kids on the block like Dr Koop's Community and PersonalMD.com that are getting greater attention because of their determination to venture into areas others were afraid to step in.
"There are nearly a dozen other companies that offer medical services through the Internet," Vipani says. "But our strength lies in that we are concentrating on the patients. We are committed to empowering the consumers."
For more information, check out the web site at http://www.personalmd.com.
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