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Cyber-doctors bring free advice to developing countries

20 June 2000 – Atlanta - A leading medical organization is using the internet to spearhead an ambitious plan to deliver free, instant medical assistance to people in the world's least developed nations.

The WebMD Foundation - the philanthropic arm of US-based Healtheon/WebMD Corporation has collaborated with the United Nations and the World Health Organization to launch the "Inter-Network", an international web portal offering health information to medical practitioners all over the world.

The non-profit venture relies on The WebMD Foundation's plans to install 100 internet-accessible computers in each of the 130 poorest nations around the world.

By 2003, the foundation says it hopes to have established a service which doctors, nurses - and eventually the general public - can consult for instant, free and regularly-updated medical information.

"What we're talking about here is global knowledge equity," said WebMD Foundation President and Chief Executive, Dr George Gellert. "We're talking about giving all people access to the same cutting edge health information that we take for granted in the developed world.

"People are immediately struck by the enormous logistical challenge it will be to install 13,000 internet terminals in areas of the world where there is often no electricity, let alone telephone wires. However, as difficult as that will be, the greater challenge will be to create content applications that the end users will find useful and valuable."

To that end, the foundation will be relying not only on the medical expertise of its parent corporation, Healtheon/WebMD, but also on content provided by a range of internationally-recognized health authorities including the World Health Organization.

"It's a perfect example of the private and public sectors cooperating," said Dr Gellert. "The private sector is offering to build the vehicle, or vessel if you like, but it's up to the public sector to determine what goes in it.

"We can make a vehicle which is easy to use and easy to access, but we could never pretend to be able to provide content which is relevant to every community in every developing nation in the world. For this reason we are bringing together leading experts to aid us in content development."

Dr Gellert said he hoped the Inter-Network would also serve as a two-way communication system between health professionals within developing countries and also around the world.

"Eventually, we would also like to see the network being used more widely," he said. "Ideally it will get to a point where the people of these nations are coming to our internet terminals to log on and learn first-hand the best way to put up a mosquito net or how to make sure the water they are serving their children is clean."

Funding of the US$150m project will rely heavily on donations from private companies.

"We will be looking for donations of not only computer hardware and telecommunications expertise, but also of what we call 'sweat equity'," said Dr Gellert. "That is, the donation of time and on-the-ground expertise by private sector employees for infrastructure installation and maintenance.

"This is a moral imperative for the advanced and affluent nations of the world. And it cannot be done without the help of the public sector, because we need their input and credibility.”

"The winners from all of this will be neither the public nor private sector but the people around the world who are currently dying from ignorance."