How reliable is the drug info you find online?
June 26th, 2014
08:04 AM ET

How reliable is the drug info you find online?

When people want to learn more about a new drug warning, they turn to the internet - that’s no surprise. But is the information they find there accurate and up-to-date? Not always, according to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine this week.

“Despite debates over its credibility, Wikipedia is reportedly the most frequently consulted online health care resource globally,” the authors write. “Wikipedia pages typically appear among the top few Google search results and are among the references most likely to be checked by internet users.”

Wikipedia, along with Google and WebMD, is where more than half of all Americans turn to for health information, according to the report.

Researchers found that when the FDA issues a drug safety warning, Google searches about that drug increase 82% on average in the following week. Wikipedia pages about the drug see a 175% increase in views on the day of the announcement.

The paper, titled “Drug Safety in the Digital Age," primarily focused on how quickly these web sources were updated with information concerning drug labels and warnings. The study examined the Wikipedia pages for their safety warning content, as well as their timeliness in updating drug safety information, for 22 prescription drugs over a 2-year period.

More than one third of the Wikipedia pages in the study were updated within 2 weeks of an FDA announcement, according to the paper.  More prevalent diseases (defined as affecting more than 1 million people in the United States) were more likely to be updated in this time frame than the less prevalent conditions.

About 23% of the Wikipedia pages were updated more than 2 weeks after an FDA announcement, taking, on average, 42 days to post the new information. More than a third of the website's pages remained unchanged more than one year later, according to the study.

So where should you go to get the latest drug safety information?

Report author John Seeger recommends consumers be “cautious about information that comes up when you do searches online" and "cross-reference it with the more authoritative source.”

“As a public health and regulatory agency, it is a priority for the FDA to provide consumers with clear and accurate information about the safety of the drugs they take," FDA spokesperson Tara Goodin said. "While there are a number of useful websites that contain information about FDA-approved products, ultimately, FDA.gov remains the best resource to find accurate and timely information about the safety and effectiveness of approved drug products.”

The authors of the study pointed out some discrepancies with the FDA’s current web set-up: “Currently, safety communications are housed on the Med-Watch portal, whereas electronic drug labels containing information on efficacy, dosage, and contraindications are located in the Drugs@FDA database — and there is no obvious link between these two resources.”

The FDA emphasized that “Drugs@FDA is not the agency’s primary communication method for new, emerging drug safety information.” Instead the agency highlighted the FDA’s Drug Safety Communications site, which brings adverse effects and information to light early in the investigation process.

The FDA also has two Twitter accounts that have drug safety announcements: @FDA_Drug_Info (which has 143,000 followers) and a drug-safety-specific account @FDAMedWatch (20,900 followers).

The study calls for the FDA to have a greater online presence in social media, as well as to extend partnerships to popular online resources. The FDA has already experimented with working with WedMD and sending official FDA alerts to registered users. The authors' findings suggest that having the FDA update and/or automatically communicate drug safety information to Wikipedia pages could potentially be beneficial.

The report authors also suggested giving academic credit to medical and university students for editing and updating articles online. The University of California, San Francisco's School of Medicine became the first to offer credit for this in September 2013.

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