Monday, June 19, 2000

Dealing drugs

I've only just gotten used to seeing prescription-drug ads in magazines, like the one with a little cloud on one page and a little sun on the other page and a little plug for Prozac. It seems odd to see Prozac hawked along with the booze and cigarettes and CDs and cars. It's odder still to see non-over-the-counter meds advertised on TV--people going on about their allergens and allergy medication, people dancing and singing the praises of their heartburn medication, people swearing by the latest weight-loss drug. I must not have gotten the memo about this sort of thing being legal all of a sudden, but clearly the floodgates have been opened. Drug companies are marketing directly to consumers, and though they haven't started giving us free pens and pads and all-expenses-paid conventions the way they do with doctors, that time may well be coming.

In the meantime, we get Web sites. That's right, those same pill peddlers who've been telling you in print and on the tube why you should nag your doctor to prescribe you their product are now setting up cozy little internet offices. Feeling sniffly? Surf over to, where you can sign up for a daily e-mail pollen alert, get a personalized allergy profile, subscribe to the monthly "Blue Skies Newsletter" full of seasonal allergy tips, even customize Claritin's home page so it suits your own specific allergy needs. And--surprise!--get a $5 rebate on your next prescription.

Similarly on call to meet all your personalized health needs is, the online site for heartburn helper Prilosec. Here you'll find, among other helpful things, a quiz, a glossary, a list of food triggers, and an offer for a free information kit containing a brochure, a questionnaire, and a personal heartburn diary (but hey, what about a Prilosec pen?) If you just can't wait to start documenting your acid reflux, though, the site offers an online diary in which you can record those painful moments, take note of what may have caused them, and then print out a detailed report for your doctor so that he can treat you properly and, oh, I don't know, maybe give you some Prilosec?

The site for the anti-depressant Paxil, currently advertising heavily on TV as a cure for "social anxiety disorder," is set up as a Mental Health Weather Station, with panic disorder pictured as a violent lightning storm, depression as a driving rainstorm, obsessive-compulsive disorder as a threatening cyclone, and social anxiety disorder as...well, the picture for social anxiety disorder shows a guy banging his head against the wall, maybe because he forgot his umbrella and is afraid to ask anyone for a loaner. In addition to clinical info on each of these afflictions, personal accounts are offered: Supermodel Beverly Johnson talks about her panic disorder! Professional baseball pitcher Pete Harnisch takes about depression! Some guy you've never heard of talks about OCD! But the centerpiece of the site is the Social Phobia Inventory Test, which invites you to select your relative degree of agreement with various statements ("Parties and social events scare me" "I am bothered by blushing in front of people") and then offers an assessment of how likely you are to have social anxiety disorder. I scored 12 out of a possible 68, which even the Paxil people had to admit did not sound like much of a problem. But the mere fact that I had taken the test at all seemed suspicious to them, and they urged that if I even thought I might have a problem, I ought to go see my doctor at once. And, um, is there any particular medication I should ask about?

Prozac, no less concerned about our well-being, offers an array of "Recovery Tools" to make sure your treatment is working the way it should (and if you're not taking Prozac, undoubtedly it ain't.) At, you can follow your progress with the Zung Depression Tracking Tool, plot your recovery on the Kupfer Curve, sign up for daily e-mails that remind you to take your medication, or forward the page to a friend so that they can be depressed, too. Of course there's a diagnostic quiz, this one called the Zung Depression Self-Assessment Test. Now, this isn't to be used if you're really, really, really depressed--the opening disclaimer clearly states that if you are feeling suicidal at this very moment, you really ought to skip the quiz and go straight to the ER. Those who are still somewhat short of the ledge can go ahead and agree or disagree with statements like "I enjoy looking at, talking to, and being with attractive men/women" or "I feel that others would be better off if I were dead." I can't tell you what my score was on this one, because although I answered every question, the computer kept telling me I didn't. A plot to send depressed people screaming for Prozac? You be the judge.

Wondering what fun your own medication of choice has to offer? In most cases, you can just plug it right into an url and see what comes up., the site for the contraceptive Depo Provera, offers a detailed description of what to expect from a pelvic exam and instructions on how to do Kegel exercises. helps you assess whether or not you've got influenza; please try not to vomit on the keyboard as you review the symptoms. I tried, but was bounced to a search engine that warned me many of my results were adults-only. Even worse, when I entered the name of my decongestant, Duratuss, I wound up at a porn site which professed to specialize in bikini-clad babes. Maybe that stuff would clear somebody's sinuses, but not mine. And speaking of porn sites, one of the offerings on is "Success Stories." Do any of them involve bikini'd babes, I wonder? At any rate, I'm not going near that self-test.

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