Surgeons trained on virtual patients

Medics now need a screenside manner, says Roger Dobson
Doctors once encouraged to develop a bedside manner will soon have to hone a screenside one. Britain's 25,000 consultants are being provided with virtual patients via the Internet so they can brush up on the latest surgery techniques, help colleagues with tricky cases and make virtual diagnoses.

They will also be able to use the virtual patients to solve clinical challenges set them by academics, using downloaded X-rays, reports, and clinical histories to reach a virtual diagnosis.

Bupa set up the Internet site last week - the first of its kind - as a new service for both physicians and surgeons. Doctors say it is particularly useful for senior members of staff who are under pressure and are rarely able to meet people outside their hospital.

"It is a new way of helping busy doctors to continue their medical education and we are using senior academics to pose questions and challenges. Typically, they will be anonymised real cases that the academics have had problems with," said Bupa's assistant medical director, Dr David Costain. "It is a way of finding things out and not exposing your ignorance."

There are also "rooms" on the site where doctors can meet and discuss problems. Consultants, who are expected to use the site in the early morning and evenings, will get access to their colleagues' approaches to the problems set as well as a recommended approach.

On the site too, says Dr Costain, will be the latest research and medical news: "News will give doctors early warning of, for example, GP surgeries filling up with people with symptoms of something that happened to a character in EastEnders," he said.

The site could eventually be connected to other sites as they develop around the world allowing almost instant access to international expertise. Its launch comes amid a big expansion in experimental telemedicine projects where real patients are being diagnosed using video images sent down telephone lines to distant specialists.

A number of telemedicine projects have been tried in the UK, ranging from a telepsychiatry service for people on the Aran Islands to the diagnosis of patients in Greece by an ophthalmologist in the West Country. The latest country to set up an Internet facility is the republic of Azerbaijan.