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Internet medical sources should augment, not replace doctors' advice
ATLANTA (CNN) - A diligent user of the Internet can learn the results of the latest research for treating and curing a disease before his personal physician knows.
In a nation of 275 million people, an estimated 100 million adults use the Internet to learn about medicines, new approaches to old diseases - including cancers, diabetes, clogged arteries and more - and to read about "cures" their doctors dismiss.
About 25 percent of users surveyed say they seek information about herbal products and other alternative medicines, according to a poll conducted for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.
"Our research shows that consumers feel the supplemental information they usually receive with their prescription medications is not complete," said Bruce E. Scott, president of the society.
So, many people check Internet sites for additional information. What they find is an array of resources, some with detailed reportage in first-class, peer-reviewed medical journals -- which patients may read before their physicians do.
Some operators of medical-information sites have political, religious, philosophical and profit motives to steer readers toward certain products. So it is helpful to remember the Internet provides many sources of data, not guarantees of useful, truthful information.
"With rising concerns about adverse drug effects, patients and consumers need trusted resources to turn to when they have questions about their medications," said Henri R. Manasse, chief executive officer of the pharmacists' organization.
Thus, this group has a sophisticated Web site, SafeMedication.com. Enter the name of a drug you are taking or may take, then read all about it.
You may learn, for example, that to lower high blood pressure, the drug lisinopril "decreases certain chemicals that tighten the blood vessels, so blood flows more smoothly, and the heart can pump blood more efficiently."
Further, high blood pressure patients will be advised to tell their doctors and pharmacists "what prescription and nonprescription medications you are taking, especially diuretics ('water pills'), lithium (Eskalith, Lithobid), other medications for high blood pressure, potassium supplements and vitamins."
Under a section called "Alternative Medicines," you'll be given the common-sense suggestion to avoid adverse drug interactions by informing "your health-care provider about the products you are using, including herbal remedies, non-prescription medicines and prescription drugs. This is especially important if you are taking 'blood-thinning' drugs or have cancer, HIV, or other life-threatening conditions.
"Keep a list or bring the products with you to your doctor's appointment. If you are taking a prescription medication, do not take an herbal remedy or dietary supplement for the same condition without the knowledge of your physician."
Then, the excellent reminder: "the term 'natural' does not mean 'safe.'"
As is common on Web sites dealing with serious issues, the site of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists not only gives helpful information but dashes this cold water in a reader's face:
"ASHP - on this Web site - does not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the materials, and makes no representations about the suitability of the information and services for any particular purpose."
Veteran Internet users know the communication on the Web is wide open. Federal agents do not routinely read medical or drug sites to assess accuracy of information or soundness of recommendations.
Trust is earned. Without doubt, some Web sites have comprehensive and precise information about diseases, medications, treatments and even projections of death by category of sickness. Consider discussing sites with your doctor.
Physicians are more likely to know about mainstream sites, especially those that carry articles from such organizations as the American Medical Association, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, American Psychiatric Association, National Cancer Institute and others.
Getting help online
The survey of Web users disclosed that 68 percent seek information not necessarily by organization but by name of disease. A common approach is to use a search engine like google.com or alltheweb.com and enter the name of the disease.
When "diabetes" was entered on Google, more than 1.5 million Web sites were identified in 0.36 seconds with 100 links listed. The first was the American Diabetes Association. Professional journals often report on advances in research and treatment for such subjects of public interest as anti-inflammatory drugs; cholesterol, blood pressure and cardiovascular problems; increasing libido; kidney ailments; lung disorders including asthma and bronchitis; stress reduction; diabetes; hepatitis and other liver problems; herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases; cancer of the breasts, ovaries, testicles, lungs and other organs; and stroke.
Going to the Web sites of professional medical journals can be a mixed blessing. For example, search for "hypertension" articles in the respected New England Journal of Medicine, and you'll see samples of deep and narrow: "Long-Term Treatment of Primary Pulmonary Hypertension with Aerosolized Iloprost, a Prostacyclin Analogue."
To proceed, you may wish to access Merriam-Webster's online dictionary (http://www.m-w.com), a multi-dictionary source at http://www.dictionary.com and The On-line Medical Dictionary at http://www.graylab.ac.uk/omd/index.html
For Web users seeking a comprehensive view of medical matters, there are the National Library of Medicine and MEDLINE at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/
Links there can help you find a dentist, physician, chiropractor, podiatrist, psychologist and other health-care providers.
NCI projects to help people find health information online
American Medical Association
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