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Can You Know Too Much About Drugs?

Pills on a laptop with a stethoscope

I have a love-hate relationship with doctors and modern medicine.

As a writer and researcher for Drugwatch.com, I spend my days researching drugs and medical devices and probing their safety profiles. I see the good, the bad and the downright ugly when it comes to how beneficial some of these products are and also how deadly some can be.

I’ve had the honor of interviewing people affected by medical devices, like transvaginal mesh and hip implants, on my Drugwatch Podcast. Many of those who suffered complications filed lawsuits. In my family, I’m the go-to person for safety questions on statins like Lipitor or type 2 diabetes medications like Onglyza and metformin.

Like the rest of the Drugwatch team, my mission is to get this information out to consumers so they can make better health care decisions. We also want consumers to know they can call us and get help if they suffer complications from faulty products.

I never really expected to have to make some of those health care decisions myself.

After a couple recent trips to the doctor, I discovered two things: Knowing a lot about drugs, medical devices, and healthcare, in general, is both a curse and a blessing.

The Problems of Knowing Too Much

I’ve researched everything from blood clots caused by Yaz birth control pills to bladder cancer linked to the type 2 diabetes medication Actos, and the lawsuits filed by people who experienced these serious complications. The information can definitely be overwhelming.

Knowing too much about the side effects of drugs can also be troublesome. It can lead to a general distrust of every medication that crosses your path. When some of these drugs or devices are medically necessary, it can actually cause more harm than good to defy your doctor at every turn.

The Internet is sometimes no help when it comes to feeding self-diagnosis fears.

What’s that pain in my leg? Maybe it’s a blood clot. What’s this headache that won’t go away? Perhaps it’s a tumor. Left arm pain? Most likely a heart attack.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 35 percent of American adults used the Internet to diagnose a medical problem. Of those people, 46 percent believed they needed help from a doctor or other health care provider, 38 percent thought they could treat it at home and 11 percent said it was both.

Easy access to information on the Internet has spawned a condition some doctors call cyberchondria. Microsoft Research defined cyberchondria as “the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomology, based on the review of search results and literature on the Web.”

Cyberchondria can cause anxiety, but it can also be expensive when someone who believes they have a serious illness goes from doctor to doctor.

CBS Chicago reported on one cyberchondriac, Lisa Lok, who diagnosed herself with everything from heart disease to melanoma.

“I’m hoping to find a sense of relief [on the Internet]. But usually the exact opposite thing happens,” Lok said in that interview. Cyberchondriacs may be prone to overtreatment, but those who don’t seek medical help may run the risk of endangering their health, as well.

Turning to alternative treatment can also be risky.

Natural herbs and supplements may not have a long list of side effects attached to them, but these “natural” remedies may also have hidden dangers since many of them are not regulated. They also affect your body, and anything that affects the body may have unwanted effects.

Also, if you already take certain medications, these herbs can interfere with the way your prescribed medicine works. Just like any drug, these herbal remedies should be approached with caution.

The Benefits of Being Informed

While there are negative aspects to researching on your own, there are also great benefits of being an informed consumer.

Because of what I know about the dangers of certain type 2 diabetes medications and the history in my family, I have always worked at keeping a reasonable lifestyle. It’s not perfect, but I try to watch what I eat and get some physical activity.

When I went for my annual checkup, it paid off. I didn’t have pre-diabetes.

However, my cholesterol was a bit high. My doctor and I talked about statins. Knowing what I know about Lipitor and some studies that showed that the statin may actually cause type 2 diabetes, I decided my diet needed to be tuned up.

During this process, my doctor was fantastic. She listened to my concerns and didn’t dismiss them. My knowledge helped me have more productive conversation with my doctor who knows I am pretty much against taking a “magic pill” for anything.

It is important to have a doctor as a partner in health, as opposed to an unapproachable authority figure. A good doctor shouldn’t be afraid of your questions or of transparency in health care.

Since my condition wasn’t yet at a critical point, my doctor allowed me to make lifestyle changes. It’s important for consumers to know they don’t always have to take a pill that might endanger their long-term health.

After being diagnosed by a doctor, reading more about your condition and any medications prescribed is also a great idea. It lets you know what to expect and allows you to ask more educated questions at your next doctor’s appointment when it comes to treatment options.

It’s All About Balance

In the end, the key is to try and find a healthy balance.

That is easier said than done, but Dr. Pamela Peeke, Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine offers up some tips in her blog:

  • Always talk to your doctor about your concerns.
  • Talk to others you can trust, including family and friends, for opinions on treatment options.
  • Seek out reputable websites for information. For example, Drugwatch always uses trusted sources including peer reviewed journals and clinical reports or news sources for the information we provide. In your research, make this a rule of thumb.
  • Trust yourself, but don’t over-stress.

My most recent doctor’s visit yielded another concern: High blood pressure. After talking with my doctor, we decided on a conservative blood pressure medication plan. As soon as I get that pill bottle, I will definitely research that medication and voice my concerns, if any.

As a responsible consumer, you should do the same. Just make sure to take the middle road and not diagnose yourself.