The question for pharmaceuticals and other companies in the medical business is the same as it is for every other industry: What’s the best way to use the Internet?

Representatives from a variety of health and medical companies businesses discussed Internet strategy at the 5th annual Wharton New Ventures in Health Care Conference on April 13. "We’re finally moving past the first generation of using the Internet, which I called brochure-ware," said Spyros Stavrakas, vice president and director of e-business for SmithKline Beecham. "That was basically web sites talking about our drugs. But now we’re in the second generation, which means our web sites are actually helpful. They are places where people can go to understand their illnesses…not just find out how to buy a drug."

The panelists all agreed that the best use of the Internet in the medical business was to create long-term connections to users, whether they are physicians, patients, customers or business partners. "For instance, we have 10- and 12-year-old kids out there using our defibrillators," said Donna Mongulla, who runs the Global E-Solutions Center for Medtronic, a medical technology company in Minnesota. "We need to provide them a way in which they can feel comfortable reaching out to other people who are in their same situation. We want them to know they can live normal lives … so we need to help them connect with people who have."

None of the participants thought that the Internet would provide a chance for domination of the medical industry — either for new dot-com companies or for the existing giants. "The impact of the dot-coms coming into this space is that it may retard our growth into [some] markets," said John S. Cooper, head of e-business strategies for Shared Medical Systems, a Pennsylvania-based company that provides information solutions to the health care industry. "But it is also an opportunity for us to find new markets or partner with new and old firms.

"I see partnering really starting to take place because of the Internet," Cooper added. "This business is not normal retail. This is not selling books over the Internet. Health care is extremely complicated. No company can do everything, so partnering will define what health care in the new economy is going to be."

Even non-profit institutions like the Mayo Clinic have Internet strategies these days, ones that integrate what they feel they do best with what they feel the medical community will buy into. Brooks S. Edwards is a cardiologist who still sees patients, but he is also the coordinator of the Mayo Clinic’s online publishing efforts, which he said has been ramped up because of the Internet. "We’ve always done patient information, whether in pamphlets or books or CD-roms," said Edwards. "But six months ago, we looked at the competition and had to decide whether to be a niche site or something that is go-to. We decided to commit to being a major player."

The Mayo Clinic spun off the publishing group as a for-profit venture and decided to be as interactive and personal as possible. Edwards said that the Mayo Clinic web site is designed to lay out choices — should a patient opt for a mastectomy or radiation, for instance, in a section on breast cancer — not make decisions.

"The consumer wants more than just information. He or she wants to be able to go to the doctor and have a well-informed relationship," said Edwards. "The Internet can enhance the information a patient comes in with, which can also aid the physician. But we don’t want to replace the patient-doctor relationship."

Companies indeed are very aware that the Internet will upset some relationships, especially with doctors. "We don’t want to be perceived by physicians as getting in the way of patients," said Mongulla of Medtronic. "But patients are clamoring for more information. This means communities – places where they can talk to other patients and providers."

As a physician, the Mayo’s Edwards is sensitive to that problem. "I once had a surgeon say to me that surgery is the most personal of all human relations, that he had to know the person whose stomach he was cutting open’ … We have to have customers know that these [Internet initiatives] are tools, not a replacement for physicians."

Still, the health-care businesses are, indeed, businesses, and want to use the Internet to make themselves more efficient and profitable in the future. "With the Internet, a movement has started from selling a pill to selling a pill with knowledge," said SmithKline’s Stavrakas. "One of the nice things is that it is relatively cost-effective. Disease management in the past was more expensive … We now look at our products not just as pills, but as a whole support structure that we can provide with the Internet."

That also means the health-care community as a whole will have to become Internet savvy, from sales staff to suppliers, insurers to physicians.

"I see doctors, especially, becoming more and more wired," said Cooper of Shared Medical Systems. "The idea of a doctor at a PC, though, is ludicrous. The need to be online, real time and at the point of need is critical. The physician can’t be running back to his PC. We see the future in broadband, wireless technology. The Palm Pilot, or a similar device, will soon be delivering our information on the spot, and that will be a revolution for health care.

"The Internet is with us in our business," he said. "It will make us better, and will help everyone to be more informed."