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Computerized drug selection.


Persons with coughs, colds, headaches and hay fever can look forward to some high-tech help in the near future. A Florida pharmacologist has developed a computer program to match symptoms with proven effective remedies, enabling pharmacists to recommend the correct non-prescription medications for specific cases. Designed to make self-medication easier and safer for over-the-counter drug consumers, the program is not a design to put pharmacists out of business, according to its developer.

Going to the drugstore can be a frustrating experience, admits Paul Doering, a University of Florida pharmacology professor and the developer of the computer system. "Ideally, everyone who enters a pharmacy would go straight to the pharmacist and ask for recommendations for over-the-counter drugs," Doering says. "Unfortunately, that just doesn't happen. People look for products they've seen advertised on television, or they walk up and down the aisles looking at labels trying to figure out which product would be best. The result is usually trial and error. They try a product, wait a few days, then try something else, wasting time and money and often not getting the relief they could get if they chose the right product the first time."

To alleviate this scenario, Doering designed a freestanding computer unit with a touch screen. When the pharmacist records a person's age, sex, weight, medical background and current condition on the computer, it can then recommend what product or products work best for the specific circumstance(s) noted. The person is then given the computer's recommendations, but not until the pharmacist first approves the final readout.

"We didn't design this to be used independently of the practicing pharmacist," Doering says. "The human element is necessary for the final assessment of a patient's needs." Nevertheless, by allowing people to pinpoint their specific symptoms, the computer can help patients avoid, for example, "multi-symptom" cold relievers that contain remedies for 12 symptoms, when in fact an individual might only be suffering from three.

"If you have congestion, [the computer] will recommend specific decongestants," Doering says. "If you have a runny nose and watery eyes, it will suggest an antihistamine and give you the option of taking those together as one product or selecting two separate products. Either way, it helps patients get exactly what they need, nothing more and nothing less."

Doering came upon the idea for computerized drug selection by using a computer in his classroom to teach his students the logic of recommending and eliminating certain options when arriving at solutions to various problems encountered by pharmacists. "Then it occurred to me," says Doering, "that practicing pharmacists could use this [same computer system] to help their customers select over-the-counter drugs." Doering says he would also like to incorporate the system for recommendation of anti-diarrhea medications, antacids, laxatives, fever reducers, and painkillers, but, he hopes, that's in the future.

Because of the ever-increasing costs of medical care and the availability of more effective non-prescription drugs, consumers annually spend billions of dollars on over-the-counter medications in this country alone--and the figures are expected to triple by 1995. "I don't think there's any doubt that consumers do self-medicate and will continue to self-medicate," Doering says. "And I think they should. The health-care system [of this country] would quickly be overwhelmed if we took every minor ailment to a physician's office." Nevertheless, Doering's computer system is programmed for certain safeguards against inadequate medical supervision. For example, if a person has had a cough for more than 10 days, it will recommend that person see a physician.

"I would hope that the program would encourage people to get medical help when they need it, and to get it sooner than they might if they were just randomly trying non-prescription drugs to alleviate serious symptoms," Doering says.
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Title Annotation:computer program matches symptoms with remedies
Publication:Medical Update
Date:Jun 1, 1989
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