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Learn More About Your Meds on the Web

November 16, 1998|Your Health Online Marla Bolotsky

Has your doctor just given you a new prescription? Perhaps you recognize the name of the drug from an advertisement but you still don't know much about it.

If you want to find out more about your prescription drugs, try checking out the World Wide Web. You'll have lots of company. A recent survey of Internet users seeking health care information found that information about drugs is one of the most sought-after topics.

Some of the beauties of the Web are the quantity and breadth of the information, as well as the speed with which you can get to it. If you are looking for easy-to-understand information about prescription drugs, a great site to visit is RxList ( Think of RxList as your online pharmacist. But be advised: This pharmacist can answer your questions about dosage and side effects, but cannot fill your prescription.

RxList is straightforward, easy to navigate--and fast. With no fancy graphics, you get right to the information you need without wasting time for pretty images to load. This site includes references to about 5,000 drugs and detailed information on hundreds of the most widely used drugs. RxList began simply as a list of prescriptions, hence the name, and has stayed true to that premise.

From the home page you can go directly to a search for a drug by name. You can also review a list of the 200 most frequently prescribed drugs, get general information about the site, or read some jokes. No, I'm not kidding. Pharmacist Neil Sandow, the site's creator, is also a cartoonist, offering regular "comix" about prescription drugs and the pharmaceutical industry. You be the judge of the drug drollery.

Sandow, a former hospital pharmacist who is now a manager of automation technologies for a major pharmaceutical distributor, created RxList in 1995 to help pharmacists identify drugs they were unfamiliar with. Originally designed as a searchable database of brand-name and generic drugs and their therapeutic categories, the site became popular not only with pharmacists but also with doctors, nurses and consumers looking for more information about drugs.

Sandow expanded the site, adding more drugs and detailed information about the most popular ones. What you'll find is clinical and dispensing information garnered from package inserts available to pharmacists. There's also information on pricing, health plan drug lists known as "formularies" and foreign brand names. Frankly, some of that information went completely over my head.

But there's also plenty of consumer-friendly information covering roughly two out of every three drugs available in the United States. You'll also find useful information about aspirin, ibuprofen and many other over-the-counter drugs.

When I searched for amoxicillin, RxList produced a 16-page report including such information as boxed warning, clinical studies, indications and uses, dosage and precautions, and contraindications. Of these 16 pages, I found the drug description, contraindications ("possible allergic reactions"), dosage (except for the part about how to mix the oral suspension) and patient information ("always finish course of therapy") to be all I needed.

For the average consumer, the rest is probably more than you'll want to know. My suggestion: Stick to the basics of what you are looking for and don't get intimidated by all the pharmaceutical jargon.

One of the site's most unique features is its "fuzzy" search engine that allows you to search for a drug even if you don't know its exact name or you botch the spelling. You can also search by keyword, side effects and imprint code (the identifying numbers stamped into the pill).

Can you trust the information? RxList says its information comes directly from package inserts, and the site is run by a pharmacist. RxList includes 400 prescription drug monographs--a summary of the drug's actions, interactions, side effects and use. New drugs are added regularly, based on people's requests. And while one might expect a lot of advertisements, I saw only one.

Another site worth visiting is the National Assn. of Chain Drug Stores (, which recommends that consumers "use medicines wisely." In fact, NACDS notes that 30%-50% of those who use medicines do not use them as prescribed. While targeted primarily to the retail pharmacist, the site includes some resources for consumers. You can find information on how to read a prescription label, tips on how to avoid problems or side effects, and a chart that's worth printing to keep a record of your prescriptions (

The drug association suggests that consumers of prescription drugs ask such questions as: Why am I taking this medicine? When should I take it? Should I take this on an empty stomach or with food? How long am I to take it? What problems should I watch for?

If you can't get these answers from your doctor or pharmacist, you now know one place to turn for help: RxList.


Marla Bolotsky is managing editor and director of online information for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. She welcomes suggestions of Web sites for review and can be reached by e-mail at

Your Health Online runs every other Monday in Health.

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