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More Power at the Keys

Customized information about drug safety is helping patients manage their medications on the Internet

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More Power at the Keys
Christie at home with her dogs, Ruby and Charlie.
Photo by James Radke

During the Middle Ages, a patient who had concerns about the side effects of a poultice or an herbal concoction provided by her healer did not have many options. If she could read, the medieval patient might turn to the five-volume tome known as De Materia Medica, a key source of herbal remedies in Europe from antiquity into the Renaissance—nearly 16 centuries. Though beautifully illustrated, the great book was undoubtedly too technical for the general reader, and it had little in the way of accurate information about interactions between herbal remedies.

Fast-forward about 1,000 years to 2010. How would our concerned patient fare today if she had similar questions about an ointment or a pill prescribed by her physician? Many prescription drugs now come with a medication guide, a paper handout containing FDA-approved information that can help patients avoid serious adverse events. But these brief documents don’t necessarily cover all drug interactions, and they are only up to date on the day they are printed. To be sure, this is a great improvement for the concerned patient, but it could be better still.

Fortunately, a further advance in patient education and empowerment has arrived, and, not surprisingly, it comes by way of the Internet. A prime example is iGuard.org, a website dedicated to providing free drug-safety information to patients. “Patients in the U.S. often have multiple doctors, who may be too busy to keep track of what a patient is taking,” says Hugo Stephenson, iGuard’s president and founder. So those people need a medication-monitoring system—something that records the medicines they take, notifies them about any drug interactions or drugdisease interactions, and sends safety alerts and recall information when needed. That’s just what iGuard does.

First launched in 2007, the iGuard website now has 2.3 million users. “On a daily basis, we get 10, 15, 20 e-mails talking about an identified interaction that changed someone’s life,” says Stephenson.

Among iGuard’s users is Christie Bilbo, a 38-year-old mother in Louisburg, Mo. Bilbo has been living with multiple sclerosis (MS) for more than a dozen years. A few months ago, one of the medicines she was taking weakened her immune system, and this ultimately led to a case of shingles, the painful skin rash caused by the chicken pox virus. Managing both conditions and the side effects of her medications has taken a toll on Bilbo. The former hospital accountant no longer has the energy for a full-time job, and she now takes seven pills a day and drives to a clinic once a month for a drug infusion to control her MS.

Yet Bilbo is one of those people who refuses to let ill health get the better of her. She keeps busy managing her household, raising two boys, and trying to stay on top of her medical conditions.

“I registered all my medicines on iGuard a couple of years ago,” says Bilbo. “It’s a user-friendly site, which doesn’t advertise for the drug companies, and it doesn’t sell the patients’ personal information,” she notes.

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