The US Food and Drug Administration seems to be wondering just that. In mid-November, it held a public hearing on "Promotion of FDA-Regulated Medical Products Using the Internet and Social Media Tools." The purpose of the hearing, according to an agency announcement, is to help guide FDA "in making policy decisions on the promotion of human and animal prescription drugs and biologics and medical devices using the Internet and social media tools."
The transcript of this hearing will not be available until sometime in December, so I do not know what FDA is proposing. But the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), welcomed the initiative, calling the hearing a "new and exciting step toward ensuring that patients can easily access truthful and reliable information about medical products online," according to a published transcript of a press briefing held by the trade organization in advance of the FDA hearing. In the transcript, Jeffrey Francer, PhRMA's assistant general counsel, offers PhRMA's suggestion that FDA develop a "single, universal symbol that would, in a single click, take users directly to pages displaying FDA-regulated prescribing information as well as patient medication guides." Such a symbol, he suggests would serve as an "unambiguous sign that an ad or Web site contains reliable information about medicine that is regulated by the government."In what seems to be a related initiative, FDA announced a collaboration with the website EverydayHealth.com, onto which FDA will deliver consumer health information. The goal, said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg in a Nov. 17 agency press release, is to "reach millions more consumers with accurate, science-based information that can help them make decisions about their health."
In another era, these initiatives would seem like an uncomfortable incursion of government into the press. But I think there's a case to be made for this initiative.
The first thing to consider is that the Internet offers information, which is not at all the same as knowledge. Yet, some people could easily confuse the two, especially if they thought the medical information sites they visit are legitimate sources of health information.
In the old days—that is, before the Internet—that function was largely the job of physicians and other professional healthcare providers. But the Internet can cut out that middleman, leaving many information-seekers to decide for themselves which sites offer reliable information. Of course, health-related information has always been available in newspapers, on TV, and in magazines. While many health communicators in these venues were not specialists, they almost always consulted people who were. Furthermore, people still relied on professional healthcare providers to prescribe drugs. But that's not the case today. Internet users now have the means to take their therapeutic regimen into their own hands.
Patients now have direct access to prescription drugs through online pharmacies, many of which don't require prescriptions. So, it's possible for someone to diagnose and treat themselves. And there's a good chance that drugs purchased over the Internet are adulterated, counterfeit, contaminated, expired, or all of the above. In her Oct. 2, 2009 blog post, Assistant Editor Alexis Pellek cited a study (see blog.PharmTech.com) in which only four of the 2930 online pharmacies investigated carried the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) certification. (The VIPPS program is governed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. FDA advises consumers to confirm VIPPS certification of online pharmacies.)
By eliminating the middleman of a professional healthcare provider, the Internet may have, in fact, created a credibility vacuum. The health and well-being of many people may benefit if someone filled that vacuum, and FDA may be the right agency to do it.
Michelle Hoffman is editor-in-chief of Pharmaceutical Technology. Send your thoughts and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org