The Food and Drug Administration held hearings last week to determine whether specific regulations should be implemented to police how far social media sites like Twitter, Wikipedia, blogs and social networks can go in promoting drugs and medical devices.
Strict regulations apply to what medical device and drug makers can claim or advertise in print media or on TV, but the Internet’s rapid pace of change has created an environment where applying existing regulations may not be possible, and where existing regulations don’t adequately address the new medium.
There are thorny issues involved as the FDA tries to determine a set of criteria for:
- Establishing when 3rd-party content has been substantively influenced by companies seeking to market their products
- Understand what online messages drug makers are responsible for
- Determining how companies can achieve balance in ads when the medium has a length limit – like the 140-character Twitter message (the FDA sent warning letters last spring to 14 companies whose online ads were misleading because they did not contain any risk info)
- When linking to information is appropriate or misleading
The financial stakes in the outcome is high for drug companies and internet service providers interested in directly and indirectly pitch their products, or seeking significant revenue from pharmaceutical companies’ deep advertising pockets.
The stakes for consumers are even higher
After all, it is your health on the line and you need to know if the information you find is accurate and unbiased – or not.
According to a June 2009 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 61% of US adults now look online for medical advice and that those looking online for health information are more likely to visit social-networking sites and look for immediately accessible information that has been posted by someone they feel is in similar situation.
The study also found that of those seeking medical information online, a majority access user-generated health information and 41% have read someone else’s commentary or experience about health or medical issues in an online news group, website or blog.
In light of this research, consumers’ need to know when information has been biased by a drug or medical equipment company is imperative. So is having an obvious, visible means of identifying the trustworthiness of medical information on a site.
For kids and teens, the issues are further heightened. They may be more inclined to search online than bring up a sensitive medical question with their parents. They are significantly less likely than adults to call a doctor or other medical professional over a health issue. Emotional risks like cutting, anorexia & bulimia need to be included in any FDA website/content monitoring. Clear boundaries need to be in place outlining the whether medical advertising can be directed toward minors online – whether it be direct advertising or ‘influenced’ advertising by 3rd-parties.
The outcome of these hearings will impact every one. Stay vigilant.