Take two aspirin and get on the Internet. This advice is fast becoming the standard prescription for anyone facing a new or major illness.
Medical journals, research papers, and huge international databases once available only to doctors are now just a mouse click away. Savvy consumers can even learn about a breakthrough before their doctor does. The technology has bred a growing group of informed, empowered patients who sometimes want to discuss and debate options, instead of just obediently following their doctor's advice.
"Doctors have the occasional experience of having a patient walk in knowing more than they do," says Dr. Tom Ferguson, a national authority on Internet growth. "In many cases, the patients are teaching the doctors about what's out there."
Information gleaned from the Internet has helped extend the lives of two people Suzanne McInerney loves dearly -- her mother and her daughter. Suzanne, who lives in Hershey, Pennsylvania, found out online about an innovative surgery for liver tumors at Ohio State University. She took her mother there and the surgery was a success, allowing her to live four years longer than doctors expected before she died of an unrelated illness. Suzanne later co-authored a book entitled Infomedicine: A Consumer's Guide to the Latest Medical Research (Lippincott-William & Wilkins, 1996).
In the fall of 1995, her daughter, Annie, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system. The family had only four days to decide on treatment. Suzanne asked to use the hospital library's computer.
"It was the last place I wanted to be," she says. "I just wanted to be with my daughter, but I knew I had to search."
After scouring the medical database MEDLINE, she reviewed treatment options, including a clinical trial using an experimental drug combination. She was able to get the name and phone number of the doctor in charge of the study. Annie, 31, took the experimental drugs and today she's a healthy graduate student working toward her Ph.D.
"Having a sick child is every mother's nightmare," Suzanne says, "but becoming informed gave me a sense of control. I wasn't going to let her lie down and die. I was going to do my very best for her."
Knowledge is power. Nearly every major hospital has an Internet site full of health information, and many doctors have their own online address. Some doctors correspond with patients free of charge.
But even your doctor can't possibly know all the medical information available on every disease. Dr. Kenneth A. Goldberg, founder of the Male Health Institute in Irving, Texas, is the first to admit he can't stay abreast of every new development. He's inundated with medical journals from around the world. Reading them all would leave no time to see patients.
"I enjoy it when my patients bring information from Web pages to me," he says. "Patients should be stimulated and involved and be a part of the decision-making process."