A new survey of US physicians argues that e-health is beginning to deliver tangible benefits and change the way clinicians work, leading to the conclusion that the first generation of e-health practitioners has already emerged.

The Harris Interactive survey carried out for Boston Consulting Group’s (BCG) ‘Vital Signs Update: Doctors say eHealth Delivers’, says not only has the Internet already had a significant impact on physician behaviour, but its influence is likely to increase very substantially.

The report concludes despite the demise of many e-health dotcoms, e-health has quietly become a vibrant medium for reaching the medical community-and promises to gain even greater acceptance in the near future.

The findings show that not only has the Internet already had a considerable impact on physician behaviour but that its influence is set to rapidly increase.

Of the 400 physicians surveyed, 89% were Internet users, averaging eight hours online a week, of which about three was devoted to medical activities.

BCG points out that although three hours a week doesn’t sound like much the average doctor spends less than one hour a week with drug reps, who are considered a successful channel for reaching doctors.

Significantly, the survey found that it is the busiest practitioners that are most likely to use the Internet, the very group that are the most attractive customers for any organisation wishing to influence the delivery of healthcare.

The study reveals that doctors – though initially sceptical — are now routinely using the Internet for gathering medical knowledge and are beginning to embrace more sophisticated online tools that enhance patient care, such as electronic prescribing, online communication with patients, and electronic medical records.

One-third of those polled said they use or plan to use electronic medical records, electronic prescribing and online communications with patients. Some 26% of the physicians polled were already using the Internet to communicate with patients.

Those using these tools say they have significantly boosted their efficiency and the quality of the care they provide. "And the high rates of planned adoption in patient care tools will greatly increase the strength of the e-health channel in the next year and a half," states the report.

Some 90% of doctors online reported that they research clinical information on the Internet, while 80% say they read articles online. Interactive formats for sharing information, such as online conferences and online CME courses – with adoption rates ranging from 31% to 45%.

Many doctors also reported that the information they find online is influencing the types of diagnoses they make and the prescriptions they write. This has significant implications for the pharmaceutical companies, and healthcare systems that seek to influence physician behaviour.

Around 20% of physicians reported that online information has a major impact on their knowledge of symptoms and diagnoses, as well as the way they interact with patients; and 13% said that it has a major impact on the drugs they prescribe. BCG says this group may well represent the first wave of e-health practitioners.

Another significant finding of the report is that when it comes to seeking medical information on the Web, doctors behave like any other online consumer, and repeatedly return to their favourite sites – showing far more loyalty to sites than patients.

The report says that a small number of high-traffic medical sites are emerging as potential vehicles for reaching a large number of doctors online. Doctors named WebMD, Medscape and Physician’s Online as their top three destinations.

However, it also points out that the most popular sites place strict limits on content and sponsorship making it difficult for players to use them to their advantage. "Therefore, although it is relatively easy to find doctors online, organisations will need to focus on devising unique and customised ways to reach them".

It argues that drug companies and other companies should re-align their offline and online marketing strategies and resources to more fully exploit the richness, reach and interactivity that the Internet offers.

Although some $13 billion was spent marketing to doctors in the US last year alone, only about 1% of the total was spent on trying to reach doctors through the Internet.

Suggested areas for re-alignment identified include funding online content and studies; using technology to complement and extend the personal relationship between doctors and drug reps; and providing CME courses and research tools.

The BCG study concludes that those firms that re-evaluate and realign their mix of investments in offline and online marketing, will enjoy significant competitive advantage.