The Web Doctor Is In

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Everyone thinks they're Marcus Welby. In a new online study of people who frequent health and medical Web sites, 90 percent of respondents said they could manage their own health-and 82 percent believe the Web offers better information on new medication than what their doctor or pharmacist has in their office. More than half said they had visited a pharmaceutical company's Web site in the last six months to research a specific drug.

"As consumers, we've grown accustomed to having as much information as possible," says Bill Kelly, president of BioInformatics, a research company in Bethesda, Maryland, that conducted the survey. "But most doctors don't feel consumers can distinguish between educational and promotional information at a [drug] company's Web site."

At allegra.com, the site for the prescription allergy drug, different pages are designed for consumers and health care professionals. While allergy sufferers can check out pollen counts in 100 U.S. cities, doctors can access in-depth resources about the medication. "We've tried to divide the audience up to give each the most appropriate information," says Julie Gladman, spokesperson for Hoechst Marion Roussel, maker of Allegra. Still, the site doesn't stop curious consumers from checking out materials meant for physicians.

Whether it's Allegra or another drug, the brand name-and what it treats-sticks with many people. Roughly 97 percent of the survey panel correctly identified Prozac as a treatment for depression. At least 50 percent matched the top-ten most heavily advertised prescription drugs, including Allegra and Evista, with the health conditions they address. (Evista is for osteoporosis.)

Where do people go online to check their pulse? The survey listed 16 popular medical sites, including Mayo Health Oasis, National Institutes of Health, and Medscape, and asked participants to indicate which one they visited most often. The number-one answer, given by 26 percent: "None of the above." The Mayo Clinic came in second with 9 percent.

In a similar question presented to 500 health professionals, 30 percent said "Other." Medscape was close behind, at 27 percent. "Clearly, there's no way that any one player can say it's the premier medical site on the Web today," Kelly says.

For more information about the study, contact BioInformatics at (301) 961-1985.

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