The number of Irish people using the internet to research health problems is on the increase and around 70,000 people have purchased medicines online, a new survey has revealed.
According to the findings, 43% of adults use the internet to look up health matters, while 24% use it to source information on medicines.
Among those who use the internet as a source of health information, 70% use it to research particular health problems. In 2010, this figure was 56%. A further 46% use it to research medicines for particular conditions, compared to 33% in 2010 and 39% use the internet to diagnose their symptoms, compared to 30% in 2010.
Meanwhile, 62% of people who use the internet for health reasons admitted that it influences their choice of medicine or treatment, a jump from 49% in 2010.
While the overall number of people buying medicines online remains low, 2% - around 70,000 adults - said that they have purchased medicines online, while a further 8% - around 267,000 adults - said that they would consider it.
And while 66% of people said that they would be concerned about the safety and authenticity of prescription medicines being sold online, 28% were unaware that it is illegal to buy such medicines online.
"The internet is an instantly accessible information and research tool, and there is a massive amount of material available to the public at the touch of their smartphone, but we urge caution as not all published information is reputable or reliable," commented Lorraine Nolan, chief executive of the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA), which commissioned the survey.
She urged people to only use official and state websites, or the the sites of medical and academic organisations, when looking up health information. However even then, this information should not be used in isolation without expert advice.
"There is inherent risk to self-diagnosis and nothing can replace the direct personal interaction of discussing a health issue with a healthcare professional who is aware of your medical history," Ms Nolan said.
Meanwhile, the survey also revealed that when adults purchase over the counter medicines, 26% never read the product information contained within, while 21% never read the information that comes with prescription medicines.
The survey also found that 31% of Irish adults are taking medication on a long-term basis, with those on long-term medications typically taking at least two medicines.
"Medicines can help us live longer and healthier lives, but it is so important that people take them as directed to ensure they get the maximum benefits while at the same time reducing the potential risk of side-effects," Ms Nolan commented.
She said that while large numbers of people are reading the product information on the label and leaflet, the HPRA is concerned that some people are not.
"We encourage people to always read this information and not just the first time that they take a new medicine. Significant details such as the contraindications or potential side-effects can change from time to time so it is important that those on long-term medication consult the product information regularly," Ms Nolan said.
However, the survey did find that overall, people's understanding of generic medcines is growing, with 60% of adults saying that they are familiar with these products. In 2013, this same figure was 48% and in 2010, it was just 36%.
Some 44% of adults have taken a generic medicine and among these, almost 90% said they had a positive experience with the drugs.