If you live in the US and search Google for a prescription drug, you're likely to be directed to the web site run by the National Library of Medicine. But Canadians will be directed to Wikipedia for generic meds or sites run by drugmakers when scouring for a brand-name treatment, according to a study published in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy (here is the abstract).
Why? One reason is a partnership between Google and the National Institutes of Health, which returns NIH-sponsored drug info pages more prominently for searches in the US. The study found that US patients using Google would most often encounter NIH-sponsored pages, hosted by the National Library of Medicine, as the top result. But US residents using Bing and Yahoo, or Canadian residents using Google for searches were led to Wikipedia or industry-sponsored sites most of the time.
The study authors say this is problematic because Wikipedia content can be changed by users and company sites may not contain entirely objective info or readily display certain data. "Notwithstanding cable access to US TV channels, which allow drug brand advertising, Canadians are at least partially shielded from American drug advertising on TV and in magazines," says Michael Law, an assistant professor at the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research at the University of British Columbia, in a statement. "Online, however, it's a bit more of the Wild West in terms of what Canadians will find. National rules and boundaries don't mean as much when you can view sites from around the world."
The study examined 278 of the most commonly dispensed drugs in the US on four popular search engines - Google (both US and Canada), Bing and Yahoo. About three quarters of the first search result on Google US for both brand and generic names linked to the National Library of Medicine. But Wikipedia was the first result for approximately 80% of generic name searches on the other sites. On these other sites, over two thirds of brand name searches led to industry sites.
Interestingly, the Wikipedia pages with the highest number of hits were mainly for opiates, benzodiazepines, antibiotics, and antidepressants. One example was Oxycodone. "This suggests to me that patients are consulting the Internet for answers to drug questions they may not want to bring up with their doctor. Given the potential for adverse events, I think it is important that the public be able to find accurate and unbiased information about the potential benefits and harms of these medicines," Law tells us. Funding, by the way, came from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.