And now for the virtual autopsy

Fancy being a pathologist? It's easy on the Internet. Roger Dobson goes on-line
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The Independent Online
FANS of McCallum and other television pathologists can at last get their teeth, or at least their knives, into a real patient.

Devotees of the growing number of fictional pathologists are now trying their own skills at finding out how people have died by tuning into the world's first virtual autopsy site on the Internet. Leicester University's pathology department is setting up the site for students, but other people have been logging on to test their skills by examining the various real organs and sifting through the clues on display.

So much interest is expected in the virtual autopsy that a health warning is being put on to the site to warn visitors that what they are about to see is not for the faint-hearted.

The site begins with an image of a body from which the amateur pathologists have to pick a part to examine.

"You can choose which system of the body you want to look at and at any stage you can try to guess the cause of death and there are a whole load of red herrings as well as the right answers," says Dr Kevin West, senior lecturer and consultant pathologist. "If you get it wrong, it will tell you why." There are seven self-contained cases and visitors to the site get a history of the condition that the patient had and of other signs and indications. They are then able to examine pictures of the organs concerned, including the brain, thyroid, bladder, hearts and lungs.

After examining these pictures users are invited to come up with the cause of death for each of the patients. Each is based on a real case and each involves a different cause of death with clues contained in the pictures of organs. "You can enlarge the photographs and they are real organs, but not the organs from the cases on which the questions have been based," Dr West said.

The site is currently being expanded to take another three cases. "As far as we know it is the first in the world and it was designed for medical students. Because it is open access we avoided putting whole dead body pictures on there. We decided to use only pictures of organs," Dr West said. "I expect we will have a lot of voyeurs which is why we have put a health warning at the front to deter the faint-hearted. Anyone who goes beyond that will know what to expect."

Virtual autopsy is the latest in a growing number of heath-related sites on the Internet. There is evidence that some sites are being used by people not only to find out what's wrong with them, but where to get the best treatment.

The current issue of the British Medical Association's News Review carries a letter describing how a man diagnosed a malignant change in his prostate, searched the Internet for the best treatments, and found the addresses of the only two centres offering what he wanted - implantation of radon seeds.

Leicester University's virtual autopsy site is at http://www.le.