Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Prescription Drug Web Sites: A Few Wrong Rubs

A study that looked at the Web sites of the top 100 pharmaceutical brands and concluded that the FDA needs to exercise more control over how these sites look rubbed us the wrong way. The paper, called “Manufacturers' prescription drug web sites: A gray area of discourse and ethics,” was presented at a conference in June. If the study’s on the Web, we couldn’t find it.

A few words on the wrong rubs.

First, women do most of the health-related shopping in the U.S., and few of them – or so says the Pink Study – get their information about a drug from the brand’s Web site, so is there a excessive reason to be alarmed? The Pink Study, primarily of college-educated ladies, showed that these women rely on their own research to get the answers they need about prescriptions they’re received. While the web may be one source of information, it is not the sole source of the information.

As for others who visit the Web site: Presuming that consumers will be misled by information they read on the site presumes that all consumers are stupid. This we believe is an assumption our FDA believes is true.  Even the study authors – from Dartmouth and the University of Minnesota -- want the drug information pages to be tagged with a genre name such as “infomercial.” But do people realize that most if not all the content on a drug web site is regulated?  The content needs to be "fair and balanced" according to the FDA; the industry spends a lot of money to hire attorneys to make sure this happens.

But in all fairness, maybe we're shooting the messenger here. While we understand the FDA's need to protect the American consumer from inaccurate, false and misleading information, might the study's findings also be a reflection of the agency's regulations? If the study authors understand that the FDA controls the content, the study doesn't reflect that. The FDA sets policy, and it's FDA policy or lack of leadership that skews content in this way.

Yes, some of the fonts on the Web sites are small, there’s no question about that. It would not be a big deal for the FDA to say: Make it 18-point, or something like that. But what is needed here is leadership, something the FDA doesn't seem to want to provide companies with that it regulates, or what the American consumer may want.

Something else bothered us about this whole thing, but it had nothing to do with the study. It had to do with the way the press covered this story. There was a time when the press made an effort to get both sides of the story. Not here. After putting the title of the paper in Google, we searched all the entries. Not one media outlet that covered the release of the study called any industry member for comment.

Not sure if that’s a sign of the quality of journalism today, or an indication of industry’s reputation. Either way, it’s not good. Food for thought as marketers try to get a handle on their marketing channels.

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