Network: A doctor on the screen

A self-help medical encyclopaedia is ideal for conversion to CD- Rom, says Sandra Vogel

When I was younger I remember seeing a set of home management books that belonged to my grandparents. Each one had a different theme, and among them was a family medical encyclopaedia which listed common illnesses, gave their symptoms to allow for easy diagnosis, and suggested treatments.

Do-it-yourself manuals like this have not gone away in the years since that set of books was published. A glance at the health shelves of any bookshop reveals umpteen publications ready to help their readers adopt a healthier lifestyle and diagnose their own illnesses.

Self-diagnosis and home-based health management might seem ideal for a multimedia makeover. Self-diagnosis is particularly suited to the new medium, which can mix and match symptoms and causes much more readily than a paper-based book could. Yet, unlike our American cousins, UK-based multimedia publishers have made few forays into the arena. Dorling Kindersley is about to redress the balance by publishing its BMA Family Health Encyclopedia.

The CD-Rom takes the same middle-of-the-road approach adopted by many of its printed equivalents - its avoidance of alternative treatments is particularly noticeable - but it adds multimedia bells and whistles. Its self-diagnosis module uses decision trees to help users work out what is wrong with them by giving "yes" or "no" responses to a series of questions.

When they get to the end of a branch, users receive a diagnosis and some advice. Discover that you have a hangover and you will be told that there is "no cause for concern"; find that your sore head could be caused by high blood pressure, and an immediate visit to the doctor is recommended.

The bells and whistles come into play if you want to know more about "headaches" in general, as clicking on the word will take you to a generalist encyclopaedia which may use a video or animation to clarify the explanations.

In compiling this CD-Rom, Dorling Kindersley has worked closely with the British Medical Association. The tie-in is important enough for them to give the BMA what would be called in movie circles "billing above the title". It is a tactic that is increasingly popular among multimedia publishers, the obvious purpose being to give their products extra clout, though in this case it is also a symbol of an ongoing relationship. The encyclopaedia's editor, Dr Tony Smith, who is also associate editor of the British Medical Journal, has been editing printed medical guides for Dorling Kindersley for 15 years.

The encyclopaedia itself has a range of potential uses, similar in nature to those of its printed predecessors. Most obviously, it can help to ensure that people go to their doctor at the right time. According to Dr Smith, "If you talk to GPs, they will say that a lot of their patients delay getting to them, while some come with conditions that don't need a doctor, except to provide reassurance." Part of the reason is a lack of basic knowledge, something a product such as this can easily supply. The longer and more explanatory reference sections of the disk can also reinforce what GPs have said and perhaps remind people of things they only half- listened to in the consultation room. And there is also a much broader public education role, which is catered for in two ways.

One section of the disk gives a good grounding in basic first aid, while another is devoted to general lifestyle matters, such as giving up smoking, losing weight, dealing with stress, and helping to prevent osteoporosis. For Dr Smith, information at this level is crucial. "A lot of people still don't realise that sunbathing or smoking causes cancer. The more education there is about these things, the better."

Ultimately, this CD-Rom seems to be simply another medium through which to serve the same basic ends as those books my grandparents had, but to do so using more modern techniques. The on-board videos and animations may make it easier to understand what is being explained, and the hyperlinks may do away with the need for an index, but the role of the information remains the same. This is not to denigrate the product, whose accessible text and typically slick presentation mean that it could end up dominating the medical reference slot of multimedia home reference collectionsn

The 'BMA Family Health Encyclopedia' (pounds 39.99, Dorling Kindersley, 0171- 753 3488).

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