US Pharm. 2013;38(3):1.
I don’t know about you, but I often
think to myself what life was like before the Internet came along. If
you are a baby boomer, you probably remember the infamous encyclopedia
salesman who would come to your house and try to sell you a set of
expensive encyclopedias. My family purchased a set that was shared by
my brothers and me as we made our collective way through our schooling.
Back then we found it hard to imagine a world without a set of
encyclopedias, much like today’s students who cannot imagine a world
devoid of computers and the Internet.
While the generational differences from
a technologic perspective are of epic proportions, there was never a
time when I questioned the data presented between the covers of a
reputable encyclopedia. Unfortunately, I cannot make the same claim
about the Internet, particularly as it relates to health information.
Patients are using the Internet regularly to look up
various kinds of health care information. In fact, I was surprised to
learn that the most popular health topic searched by Americans in 2012
was, according to Google’s annual analysis, hemorrhoids. Yes,
hemorrhoids; not cancer, high blood pressure, COPD, or a host of other
chronic illnesses. One possible explanation is that many patients find
the subject of hemorrhoids embarrassing, especially the prospect of
discussing them with their health care professional, but have no
problem looking for information on the Internet in the privacy of their
A survey done in 2006 by the Pew
Internet & American Life Project revealed that 80% of Internet
users in the United States, about 113 million people, had searched the
Internet for information on at least one of 17 health topics. On any
given day, 8 million people, or about 7% of Internet users, looked for
health-related information online. Though the survey is somewhat dated,
one can only assume that the number has increased in the last 5 years
given the affordability of computers, which has translated to more
Internet accessibility for so many more patients. Despite the increase
in online activity, the question remains as to whether the information
on the Internet can be trusted. The Pew study indicated that just 25%
of the people who searched for health information took the time to
verify the source and date of the data. That leaves approximately 85
million people who don’t have a clue as to whether the information they
are reading is accurate or not.
There are no more dangerous examples of
how unreliable health care information on the Internet can be than the
fake pharmacies that proliferate on the Web and the counterfeit
medications being sold there. Criminal gangs are increasingly using the
Internet to market potentially life-threatening counterfeit medicines.
It is estimated that the global sales of counterfeit medicines amount
to over $75 billion, a number that has more than doubled in the past 5
years. Of the 10,065 online pharmacies studied by the National
Association of Boards of Pharmacy, 97% of them violated state or
federal laws and are illegal in the U.S. A similar survey by the FDA
uncovered that one in four consumers bought prescription drugs online,
while only 30% said they were not confident about buying drugs safely
It is important that your patients be
consistently reminded that there is no substitute for face-to-face
consultation with you, one of the most trusted health care
professionals. Trusting the Internet for health care information is
just bad advice.
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