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 home.  

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 online.

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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