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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soundoff (66 Responses)
  1. Marisa

    This is great information – too often, we fall into the trap of believing everything we read. It's always nice to have a reminder to be critical, especially when it comes to our health!

    June 26, 2014 at 12:56 | Report abuse | Reply
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  2. meh

    I am always taking pills I find / steal. I often look them up online to make sure I get the right dosage and that they don't have really bad effects. Taking the chance with outdated online info is better than getting no info at all, IMO.

    June 26, 2014 at 16:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Jrad

    Everything on the Internet is a lie.

    June 26, 2014 at 17:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Anonymous

      Did you read the whole article? They said that those sites like WebMD are getting updated by the FDA and universities.

      July 15, 2014 at 01:54 | Report abuse |
  4. pogostick

    How reliable is the informatiom you get from the pharmacuitcal company who makes the drugs?

    June 26, 2014 at 18:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. daleandnet2

    I had leg cramps starting when I was about 65. Woke me at night with horrible pain. My doctor said there was nothing available ;....that is until some one told me about an isotonic formula found at http://us.wellnessdifference.com/buymotivesmakeup/product/isotonix-calcium-plus?id=2223&idType=product. This has nothing to do with me other than to let u know that my cramps stopped the very first time I tried it. will it work for you? Take a look at the research behind it and see what u think.

    June 26, 2014 at 19:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ryan

      There are many things available for leg cramps, both prescription and nonprescription, so I have a hard time believing your doctor told you that

      June 27, 2014 at 10:10 | Report abuse |
    • portlandtony

      This just spam and fool will buy this stuff.!!

      June 27, 2014 at 12:10 | Report abuse |
  6. Jennifer J

    I have found that the drug info that I'm given with the filled prescription is verbatim to what one finds on WebMD. So apparently some pharmacies feel that the info there is accurate. Personally, I can't say.

    June 26, 2014 at 23:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • portlandtony

      Your Doctor should have explained the pro's and cons of any drug he or she prescribes along with the reason they are prescribing it.

      June 27, 2014 at 12:17 | Report abuse |
  7. BaltoPaul

    Least reliable source of information: Your average doctor.

    June 27, 2014 at 00:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • whatnow

      No, that would be information gathered by people who think they know more than their doctor.

      June 27, 2014 at 09:16 | Report abuse |
  8. asdasdffasdadsf

    This is the main sentence from the article:

    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.

    That's the problem, in a nutshell.

    Also? People need to learn to do a search for a credible source. In your search engine's search box, type the medication name + site:.gov

    That will return ONLY websites with a .gov extension. The .gov TLD is tightly controlled.

    June 27, 2014 at 05:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. J

    This is based on the assumption that the FDA is a reliable source.

    June 27, 2014 at 06:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Floyd Schrodinger

    Never, nerver, nerver go to Wikipedia for any information, especially drugs. If you want info on drugs, go to web md or better yet, call your pharmacist.

    June 27, 2014 at 07:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • whatnow

      You are so right and I would add that people should never, never, never self-diagnosis their illness based on internet searches.

      June 27, 2014 at 09:19 | Report abuse |
  11. portlandtony

    Best check with your doctor since some drugs are prescribed "off label" which is perfectly legal, but your pharmacist will not know your particular medical history or your physician's treatment plan!

    June 27, 2014 at 12:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Pami

      Drugs online are informational but not set in stone.. you do have to ask your DR and or pharmicist more questions about how that drug can serve you. I have also on occassion contacted the manufacturer and been surprised at whats in those pills. I recommend everyone do that!

      July 1, 2014 at 17:51 | Report abuse |
  12. odalicefeliz

    According to this article " FDA.gov remains the best resource to find accurate and timely information about the safety and effectiveness of approved drug products.” Some-times Google can't answer all.

    July 2, 2014 at 20:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Artemis MA

    If it is Dr Oz, I run and hide. If it is something from a peer-reviewed journal, I'll consider it. Not necessarily accept it, but this is a step more advanced in my outlook on medicine.

    July 4, 2014 at 17:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Jen

    SItes where patients report the real side effects are where you really need to go.

    July 15, 2014 at 00:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jen

      Eg http://www.askapatient.com/

      July 15, 2014 at 00:25 | Report abuse |
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.