Pharmaceutical Company Websites as Sources of Information for Consumers: How Appropriate and Informative Are They?
Kathleen M. Griffiths
Although the advantages of disseminating health information on the world wide web are well recognized, there has been considerable concern about the quality of online information. There has also been some debate as to whether organizations with a vested interest in a product, such as pharmaceutical companies, can provide balanced and appropriate information on the web. However, there is very little published information about the content, quality or impact of pharmaceutical websites. This paper considers the issues, arguments and empirical evidence for and against the practice of direct-to-consumer advertising by pharmaceutical companies. It also describes a selected set of pharmaceutical company sites that provide consumer information about major public health problems or about health conditions corresponding to frequently used search engine terms. The pharmaceutical sites surveyed were characterized both by positive attributes (such as a breadth and depth of information, specification of medication adverse effects, and inclusion of potentially useful consumer aids such as symptom diaries and screening tests) and negative features (such as failure to disclose authorship and scientific sources, failure to provide clear and accessible information about the absolute and relative efficacy of the treatments mentioned, and absence of an editorial board or independent review process). We note that these attributes are not necessarily indicative of the quality of the content or the utility of websites and argue that there is a need for systematic studies comparing the accuracy of the content of pharmaceutical sites and nonpharmaceutical sites. Such studies would need to be conducted by content experts using evidence-based information as a gold standard. Many consumers are not in a position to assess the quality of the content of pharmaceutical sites and do not place a high level of trust in pharmaceutical companies. We suggest that it might be in the interests of the companies to encourage the independent review and certification of their sites. A consortium of companies could contribute funds to an independent authority that in turn could contract third party content evaluators to undertake quality assessments of pharmaceutical sites. In the future, initiatives such as the MedCERTAIN collaboration might provide consumers with certification information on a range of health sites including pharmaceutical websites. Not only would such evaluations provide a means for consumers to identify high quality sites, they might also assist pharmaceutical companies to optimize the quality and credibility of the health information they provide on the web.
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