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Polls suggest consumers continue to swarm the Internet in search of health care information, but the same surveys also show that people remain dubious about the information they receive. Worse yet, no health care accreditation standard currently exists to help boost consumer confidence.
URAC — the American Accreditation Health-Care Commission in Washington, DC — is seeking to change that. In fact, URAC’s accreditation standards for health web sites now are in the final phases of development. A set of draft standards for its Health Web Site Accreditation program were released for public comment Feb. 26, 2001, and in March the association started accepting pre-applications. The projected launch date is Aug. 1, 2001.
According to a Harris-Interactive survey conducted in January 2001, 77% of those surveyed indicated that an accreditation "seal of approval" would increase their trust in a hospital web site. But industry experts complain that no mechanism currently exists for hospitals and other health care providers to accredit their web sites.
"Certain organizations have developed standards with regard to privacy and other issues, but as far as we know there is no organization performing the accreditation function," reports Don Nielsen, MD, senior vice president of quality leadership with the Chicago-based American Hospital Association (AHA). According to Nielsen, nearly every hospital now has a web site that includes qualitative and clinical information. But he says the overwhelming number of health care web sites and the disparity in the quality of that information have led the general public to question the reliability of that information.
"The first question on their minds is the quality of that information and how to know whether it is reliable," asserts Nielsen, who plays an advisory role in URAC’s effort. "Hospitals and others constructing web sites must ensure that the information they are providing is up-to-date and current."
There is currently a gulf between the rhetoric and what is actually happening with web-enabled technology, agrees Gary Carneal, JD, MA, president of URAC. He points out that URAC’s core affiliation is preferred provider organizations, HMOs, and other managed care entities, and says the association has no current plans to enter the hospital accreditation market in general. Rather, Carneal says, the association is seeking to fill what it sees as a vacuum to give consumers confidence that a basic quality infrastructure underlies health care web sites.
To make that effort as broad-based as possible, URAC has assembled an advisory committee that includes representatives from the AHA, the American Medical Association (AMA), and numerous other health care organizations. Its effort to draft standards also enjoys the support of High Ethics, a coalition of organizations that has been active in developing a code of ethics for consumer web sites.
"One of the exciting things that we have been able to do is bring together all of the actual stakeholders that were developing ethics standards such as High Ethics, the Internet HealthCare Coalition, the AMA, Health on the Net, and others," explains Carneal. He says URAC is attempting to aggregate the efforts of all of these groups and generate a verifiable set of standards through a single accreditation program.
Carneal points out that URAC is the first nationally recognized health care organization to release a set of standards for public comment. Moreover, it is the only accreditation program under development that represents a third-party audit function with an on-site component in this area. He says URAC’s underlying aim is to provide expertise in how to launch an accreditation program in a cost-effective manner with reliable points of measurement in the auditing functions and ensure there is integrity in how reviews are performed. "We are trying to apply the best practices of the accreditation to the on-line web site community," he explains. "It is too early to predict what will happen one way or the other," adds Carneal. "We hope we can offer consumers and other businesses a method to assess the practices that support health care web sites."
URAC currently is developing the accreditation process it will use to verify compliance with these standards by health web sites. However, it has tentatively made the following determinations:
To achieve URAC accreditation, parent organizations and web sites must comply with established standards in the following areas:
[Additional details regarding the web site accreditation process will be available as the program approaches implementation. Check URAC’s web site at www.urac.org for updates. For more information about the pre-application process, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call URAC at (202) 216-9010.]