Doctors plagued by patients getting second opinion from the Internet A new epidemic is terrorising our GPs: Internet Print Out syndrome

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GPS ACROSS Britain are finding themselves reduced to terror by a new syndrome which is spreading among patients. And it is expected to get worse.

The symptoms are easy to spot - patients arrive for consultations clutching 20 or so printed pages that he or she has downloaded from the Internet. And the doctor has another case of Internet Print Out syndrome (IPO) on his or her hands.

According to the journal, Health Information, IPO is being experienced by more and more doctors: "It is a growing issue and one of the problems is that a lot of doctors don't know how to handle it,'' says Harry Brown, a Leeds GP who carried out the research.

"Suddenly, for the first time in human history, patients have virtually the same access to the same information that doctors have."

Some patients have surfed the Internet trying to match their symptoms to disease profiles, while others have discovered that there is another drug they could be using.

Patients manage to convince themselves that the common-or-garden symptoms they have are really indicators of a rare, usually fatal disease. Often it turns out to be a cold.

One of the problems for doctors who are on the receiving end of the print- outs is that the information on the Internet sites is not always reliable. Many are United States-based and some have a commercial spin to their advice, coming from private medical service providers there.

Another problem for doctors is that while prescription drugs cannot be advertised in Britain, they can in the US. As a result patients are finding out about drugs from American sites and quizzing their GP about why they are not getting them here.

"It is a problem that people turn up with material of limited quality'' says Dr Brown. "It may be biased, it may be inaccurate, and some may be advertising a product. There are proper sites, like that of the British Medical Journal, but some are unreliable.

And there are fears that IPO can only get worse after Christmas because of the thousands of people expected to go online for the first time with their new computers.