The FDA should step up its own social-media action, NEJM researchers say

The FDA has given drugmakers some social media advice. Now, researchers have some online advice for the FDA.

Apparently, these researchers figure that FDA is spending too much time on the internet sidelines and not enough playing the game. That's the same accusation marketers often level against pharma companies themselves. And the proposed fixes are somewhat similar.

In a New England Journal of Medicine column, researchers from Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Boston Children's Hospital say the FDA needs to do more to spread safety information about approved drugs. How? Try integrating its Twitter and Facebook accounts with its websites, for one thing.

The agency has a couple of drug-safety-oriented websites, MedWatch, which rolls out news on drug safety, and [email protected], the repository for official FDA info about particular drugs. It has two related Twitter handles: @FDAMedWatch and @FDA_Drug_Info. The latter has a decent following, but the MedWatch feed is languishing. Both could grow if they were more closely tied in to the websites they're promoting.

Then there's Wikipedia, a conundrum for many drugmakers. How much and when should pharma companies update the Wikipedia pages about products, for instance? Provided that the FDA may be watching their every move? The FDA has no such problem. So, why aren't Wikipedia pages updated with new safety information immediately?

According to the NEJM column, some 41% of those pages are updated within two weeks of a new warning--but 36% went unchanged for more than a year. Example: The blood cancer drug Adcetris got a new black-box warning in January 2012. The news prompted patients to search online, and Wikipedia's Adcetris page saw two-and-a-half times its usual traffic. But the new warning was absent from that site--and remained unmentioned two years later.

With patients more involved than ever in treatment decisions, that's disturbing. And it's the Wikipedia pages most searched by patients--those related to rare diseases and their treatments--that are most likely to go without safety updates, the researchers found.

Some fixes the researchers propose: FDA could team up with Wikipedia as it did with WebMD, sending public health announcements to the site's users and prompting the site to add the new info. Or maybe the agency could enlist medical schools to put Wikipedia into their curricula. Students could sift Wikipedia pages for incomplete and problematic info, and update them, for academic credit. Docs could do the same to win CME credits.

Ironically enough, the FDA is worried that people aren't paying attention to its safety alerts. The agency is looking to hire consultants to monitor social media (and mass media, too) to find out whether its communiques are finding an audience, and whether the audience is paying attention.

- read the NEJM column
- get the Medical Marketing & Media story

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