Data Bases For Doctors And You

For 18 months, Susan Corning watched helplessly as a rare form of cancer kept her elderly father housebound. Then, the Palo Alto (Calif.) management consultant spent $89 on a computer search of the type doctors use to find the latest medical data. Through a reference to an obscure journal, Corning found a University of California doctor experimenting successfully with a new drug. Within weeks, she had arranged for her father to get the medication. Now, he has resumed an active lifestyle that includes skiing and golf.

Until recently, only medical professionals and skilled computer users could tap into such data bases. But new industries have sprung up, giving consumers access to the same information. Dozens of public and health-resource libraries, clinics, and hospitals nationwide have begun installing the Health Reference Center, a hardware system made by Information Access in Foster City, Calif. The system gives consumers free use of a PC to locate and print out disease-specific articles.

Or, for a fee, a number of organizations will run computer searches on a medical topic and supply the results. Corning used Medical Information Service, operated by the nonprofit Palo Alto Medical Foundation (800 999-1999). Within 24 hours after a search request, MIS ships a bound report that includes up to 200 references and abstracts on a specific disease and a directory of support organizations. MIS gets a flat fee of $89 per search, charging extra for actual copies of abstracted articles. Other vendors include AIC Services in Ann Arbor, Mich. (313 996-5553), which charges $150 to $300, depending on the topic and how fast the search is delivered, and American Connection in Stamford, Conn. (203 359-9359), which costs $300 to $500 for an exhaustive search that can take up to five days to arrive.

Not surprisingly, the American Medical Assn. is cautious about the new services, expressing concern that patients may substitute a search for critical medical care. But some physicians look forward to having well-educated consumers of their services.

Don't expect insurance to pick up the tab for a search, which can run as high as $1,500. And be specific: Requesting data on the flu, allergies, or fatigue is likely to generate information too general to help.