That's what two professors have concluded after a preliminary study of web sites for the 100 best-selling prescription meds in 2009. Their preliminary analysis, which was presented at a recent conference in Boston, finds the sites are a "bewildering and patchy mess of information" that often make safety data hard to find and makes it hard to distinguish between promotion and education.
"Our analysis suggests there is a blurring of the lines which is not in anyone’s interest," Lewis Glinert, a Dartmouth University linguistics professor and one of the co-authors, tells us. "“There should be a lot more regulation of these websites. The FDA should be more hands-on."
For instance, they found that about three-quarters of the sites provide as much as safety info as benefit info on home pages; safety info was visible without having to scroll down slightly more than half of the time; safty info was placed in manageable paragraphs on about four-fifths of the sites; key safety items were bulleted on roughly half of the sites, and fewer than half listed benefits in a "detached tone." Among the sites they canvassed were those for the Lipitor cholesterol pill, the Actos diabetes drug, the Nexium heartburn med and the Plavix bloodthinner.
Consequently, Glinert and co-author Jon Schommer of the Department of Pharmaceutical Care and Health Systems at the University of Minnesota, say the FDA should "bury its assumptions that a web site functions communicatively" like TV or magazine ads, or like labeling (see statement). And Glinert notes Google recently tinkered with its search function so that National Institutes of Health info about a drug is displayed near the top of search results. In his view, their research justifies the change.
As a counterpoint, Bob Ehrlich, who heads the DTC Perspectives consulting firm, wrote a note about their findings and argued that consumers are "savvy enough" to know that branded websites are a form of advertising. "I do not agree that the bells and whistles of web sites need to be overly scrutinized or restricted. A wealth of information may be confusing but that does not mean we should mandate less for the sake of simplicity. I think it is up to the consumer to discard what is not useful. The websites are there to provide depth of information the broadcast or print ads cannot provide."
He then suggests "Glinert should be more concerned with the thousands of non-regulated web sites that offer faulty or outright dangerous alternatives to drug treatments. The web is full of bogus drugs and information. The unregulated sites are the public health risk, not drug company sites."
In response, Glinert says "this is a cheap rhetorical ploy – 'just look at things that are far worse, not us.' I know that there are things that are far worse. That’s no revelation. (Pharmaceutical companies) have enough common sense to know what clear, conspicuous and neutral means, and how the average user is going to be looking at a site."