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Americans Take Health Care Into Their Own Hands

But some experts worry that serious medical problems will be missed

Please note: This article was published more than one year ago. The facts and conclusions presented may have since changed and may no longer be accurate. And "More information" links may no longer work. Questions about personal health should always be referred to a physician or other health care professional.

HealthDay Reporter

SUNDAY, July 22, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- More Americans are becoming "do-it-yourselfers" when it comes to their health, a recent survey shows.

Two big reasons for the trend, according to the survey: It saves time and money. But health experts worry that some people who need professional medical care may not get it, and rely instead on over-the-counter drugs and treatments.

"Americans are taking health care into their own hands," says Dr. Michael Maves, president of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.

The association commissioned the survey, done by Roper Starch Worldwide. Of the more than 1,000 people questioned, 59 percent said they're more likely to treat their own health conditions now than they were a year ago.

Also, 73 percent said they would rather treat themselves than see a doctor, and 62 percent said they'd like to do more self-care in the future. And 96 percent of the respondents said they're confident about the health-care decisions they make for themselves.

The health conditions people treat themselves range from colds, respiratory infections, muscle aches and pains, baldness, yeast infections and nicotine replacement treatments, Maves says.

"It's really quite impressive, the array of medications that are out here," he says.

Nearly 80 percent of the respondents said they've used an over-the-counter medication at least once in the past year to treat an ailment -- almost twice the number of people who said they saw a doctor or took a prescription medication during the same period.

And it seems they pay close attention to labels, because 95 percent said they read directions before using any over-the-counter medication for the first time and 91 percent review possible side effects and interactions.

Maves stresses over-the-counter medications are not a substitute for doctors, but let people deal with minor medical problems on their own. This is the latest in a series of surveys that have shown people are interested in self-care, and would like more options to look after their own ailments.

Convenience, accessibility and low cost are among the reasons for the trend, Maves says.

"If you have to go see a physician for a common cold, it isn't just the cost of the doctor visit. It's the cost of the time off from work, getting (to the doctor's), parking, making arrangements for the kids," Maves says.

And in a society where time in increasingly precious, over-the-counter medications are cost-effective in the broadest sense, he says.

"It does follow a trend of so-called consumer empowerment, where people take responsibilities for their own health care," says Dr. Richard Levinson, associate executive director of the American Public Health Association.

More people are also seeking health information and advice from a variety of sources other than their doctors. These sources include the Internet, friends and family, and pharmacists. And over-the-counter medications have gone from offering simple relief of symptoms to providing diagnosis and treatment options.

"I think that the envelope is constantly being pushed in that there's pressure for putting more and more diagnostic and therapeutic agents on the shelves of pharmacies or supermarkets, and letting people essentially guide themselves to diagnosis and treatment of disease, as well as relieving symptoms," Levinson says.

"Now, how far that can go and when a point of danger is reached remains to be seen," he adds.

One problem is that people who take over-the-counter drugs often don't tell their doctor. That can lead to potential interactions with prescription drugs, he says.

There's also a danger people will rely too much on self-diagnosis and over-the-counter drugs, and not see a doctor when they have a serious medical problem, Levinson says.

What To Do:Go to this U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) site to learn more about how over-the-counter drugs are reviewed. And check out the Institute for Safe Medication Practices.

SOURCES: Interviews with Michael Maves, M.D., M.B.A., president, Consumer Healthcare Products Association, Washington, D.C.; Richard Levinson, M.D., associate executive director, American Public Health Association; Washington, D.C.

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