Frederick Noronha on Fri, 26 May 2000 09:41:23 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Digital library-health (India)


              An unusual library in Mumbai offers help to those 
              wanting information on medical issues. Those unable 
              to come can rely on something quaintly acronymed 
              MISS-HELP (Medical Information Search Service for 
              HELP). In keeping with the cyberage, HELP's 
              Internet link even provides info on the latest 
              medical research from all over the globe. HELP has 
              become a prototype of the modern digital library 

By Frederick Noronha

Does diabeties plague someone in your family? Having a problem 
with fitness, exercise or nutrition during pregnancy? Want access 
to support groups, or worried grey about what you can do to help 
your child with disability?

Rx: Knowledge. 

Does this prescription seem strange? Rather than lengthy 
prescriptions for various pills, an unusual service in the Indian 
city of Mumbai advocates that the best prescription for the 
patient is knowledge! It strongly makes out a case that the best 
patient is a well-informed one. Even from a doctor's point of view.

HELP (the Health Education Library for People), located in the 
Indian city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is the largest medical-
consumer library in the world, says UNESCO. It is packed with 
information, and its shelves have books enough to once comprise a 
mini tropical rainforest. 

Each day, it draws both general and specialised visitors.

"People often feel that medical issues are too esoteric. We're 
trying to overcome that. The idea is to educate them so they 
don't get mislead or misguided. Patients shouldn't be made into a 
guinea-pig or taken advantage of just because they're not very 
well versed with medical knowledge," says the lady doctor who 
guided this journalist round the centre during a recent visit.

"In order to encourage the rational use of drugs, rather than 
focus only on medical practitioners, I feel we need to 
concentrate on patients as well," adds HELP founder Dr Aniruddha 

This, notes Malpani, makes sense. Patients themselves have the 
"most to lose" if drugs are started unwisely by them. "We have 
access to information on every health and medical topic under the 
sun, explained in terms that the layperson can understand," says 
Dr Malpani confidently.

"We are a public library. Everyone is welcome. Entry is free," is 
the motto of HELP. Institutional members have to pay though. 
Those unable to come personally can also send in queries via post 
or email. They can rely on something quaintly acronymed MISS-HELP 
(Medical Information Search Service for HELP). 

In keeping with the cyberage, HELP's Internet link even provides 
info on the latest medical research from all over the globe. HELP 
has become a prototype of the modern digital library too.  Its 
web site has many full-text health 
books and magazines. So visitors can browse them for free.

Each month the site receives some 60,000 visitors (500,000 hits), 
says HELP. "This lets us extend our outreach services by 
providing consumer health information to Internet users from all 
over the world," adds Dr Malpani proudly.

This initiative was launched by Drs. Aniruddha and Anjali 
Malpani, famous fertility specialists. They found that patients 
abroad were well-aware of medical issues, as against ignorance 
reigning here. Its visitors currently include a lot of lay 
people, journalists, researchers, medical students and interns, 
housewives, senior citizens and even some very reputed doctors.

Many queries come in via email too, says Dr Hufrisha Suraliwala, 
a dentist and the medical information manager. It is run by a 
non-profit trust. Currently, it has 50 CDroms, 500 video cassettes, 
7000 books and pamphlets, kits, newsletters and journals. All is 
free of medical-jargon and is focussed at the consumer. 

"There's not a single book from the medical curriculum," says Dr 
Suraliwala proudly. "It's a consumer library, meant to provide 
information to the layman. Doctors can easily find their own 
information; but this often proves to be very difficult for the 
average person."

Information doesn't come in only from the world of allopathy. 
Other curative means of medicine are also used -- including 
homeopathy, ayurveda, music therapy, the now-growing in 
popularity Reiki, Taichi, Yoga, Massage Therapy, Aromatheraphy, 
Unani, Accupressure, Acupuncture, and even -- believe it or not -
- something as exotic as tickle-theraphy.

There's even information from the world of nutrition, dietetics, 
medical resources, sports medicine, spiritual healing, and mind-
body medicine. On each first and third Saturday, lectures of 
medical importance are held at the library. 

HELP's aim is to promote healthy doctor-patient relationships by 
informing the patients better. It says it also wants to prove to 
be a useful resource for writers and journalists, as this could 
improve the quality and accuracy of reporting on medical topics 
by the mainstream media.

In addition, it hopes that over time it could act as a stimulus 
for patients with a particular disease to get together, form 
self-help groups, and help each other cope with their diseases.

More knowledge could also prevent health fraud and quackery. 
"Ultimately we hope that well-informed patients will demand the 
best treatment available, and this will act as an incentive for 
doctors to update their skills and for hospitals to improve their 
facilities," adds Dr Malpani.

This air-conditioned reading room can set upto 25. Computerised 
information allows for speedy searches for pinpointing 
information needed. Photocopying is charged at Rs 1 per page, 
reasonable by local standards.

HELP also has access to specialised foreign medical databases 
like MEDLINE, Cancerlit, AIDSLINE and HealthStar to answer 
queries. On sending in a query, the confidential reply comes on 
about 50-100 pages or on floppy in seven days, by registered 
post. Of course, this is not meant to be a substitute for the 

"People in India often don't bother to take a second or third 
opinion on even major health issues. They take everything lying 
down, and don't bother to research their condition," says Dr 

HELP is also trying to get doctors to "prescribe information". It 
has printed Information Prescription pads, which are freely 
distributed to doctors on request. Instead of just giving a list 
of medicine, the doctor could suggest to the patient what he or 
she needs to know about the disease or ailment. Doctors can thus 
indirectly educate their patients with a Prescription for Information. 

Then, doctors need to discuss the results of this information 
search with the patient, so that the doctor can guide patients to 
locate which information is relevant to their particular problem. 
There's perhaps no better way about information the patient as to 
what's important for him or her, believes this centre. Doctors 
and patients can become partners in making medical 
decisions. (Third World Network Features)

CONTACTS: HELP - Health Education Library for People can be 
contacted via telephone (022) 368 3334 or 368 1014. Fax 91.22.215 
0223 Email: or 
and via the Internet 

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