'E-mail medicine' brings us answers and questions


March 14, 1995|By Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon | Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon,King Features Syndicate

Do apple seeds contain a poisonous substance? Will Prozac ruin my sex life? Exactly how much caffeine is in soft drinks and pain relievers? Does melatonin relieve insomnia and prevent cancer?

These are just a few of the questions being asked and answered on the information highway. E-mail medicine is changing the way people get answers to their health concerns.

It used to be that when someone got sick, he went to the doctor, got a prescription for some pills and swallowed them faithfully. Patients were rarely told what they were taking and had little or no access to information about side effects.

Now, people all over the world are swapping stories and getting instant answers to their queries. A computer, a modem and a phone line are all it takes to link up to the Internet.

Electronic mail is not so different from the old-fashioned kind (snail mail), except it gets there a lot faster. You can send a message from New Jersey to New Zealand in seconds and usually get an answer within a few hours.

Patients and physicians are discovering all sorts of innovative ways to use this new technology to stay in touch. For example, a physician may be able to track blood pressure and blood sugar readings taken at home to monitor a patient's progress. Questions about a new treatment can be handled efficiently without worrying about making an office appointment or trying to get through on the telephone.

Perhaps even more exciting is the possibility of linking up with hundreds or thousands of people who can trade information about specific conditions (diabetes, depression, cancer) or medications.

Doctors are often uncomfortable discussing the sexual side effects of drugs in an office visit. But the anonymity of the Internet allows people to talk about their most intimate experiences. Changes in sex drive associated with anti-depressants are openly described in computer communications.

New therapies for devastating diseases are also shared. This has led to controversy. Last year, a few patients with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) began taking a new epilepsy medicine called Neurontin (gabapentin). They told others about it through a computer bulletin board and now, nearly one-third of the ALS patients in this country are taking Neurontin, even though it has not been proven effective. This makes many neurologists nervous.

Physicians worry that inaccurate or unsubstantiated information could prove hazardous. This concern is well founded because there is no way to police the information highway.

As millions more people go on-line with e-mail medicine, they will have to be very cautious. Common sense and good judgment will be more important than ever for people cruising the electronic byroads.

Q: Can you tell me the caffeine content of various soft drinks, hot beverages such as tea and coffee, and over-the-counter pain relievers?

A: Caffeine content varies significantly depending on the brand of soft drink, the method of brewing the coffee and the type of pain reliever. A cup of coffee contains from 50 milligrams for instant to 150 mg for filtered. Tea ranges from about 30 mg to 50 mg depending on how long it steeps. Soft drinks average between 30 and 50 mg in 12 ounces. A dose of Anacin has 64 mg of caffeine and Extra-Strength Excedrin contains 130 mg per dose.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.

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