PharmExec Blog

Accept It, Wikipedia Is a Public Health Issue. Now Let's Fix It.

by Beth Bengston

wikiMedical articles on Wikipedia receive about 150 million page views per month, and nearly 50% of practicing physicians use Wikipedia as an information source for providing medical care. And while Wikipedia itself has disclaimers that information included on its site may be inaccurate, that doesn’t stop consumers and medical professionals alike from using it as a health source that they consider credible. What should we do? Stop sticking our head in the sand and take accountability to fix this very concerning public health issue.

I recently spoke with a colleague whose doctor’s medical assistant provided her with incorrect information and referenced Wikipedia as the source. Thankfully, she knew enough to go online herself (not to Wikipedia!) and learned the information was wrong. But, that’s not the case for many consumers. They trust their medical professionals without question, and believe that everything they read online is fact, especially from such a popular site as Wikipedia – never realizing that the information might be inaccurate and sometimes downright dangerous.

Those in the healthcare industry, especially drug manufacturers and the FDA, have a public health responsibility to play a role in helping to fix the inaccuracies and incomplete information on Wikipedia. Sure, there are some challenges – like the perception that the drug manufacturers have a conflict of interest or that getting anywhere near user-generated content will result in a visit from the FDA, but we should work toward common sense solutions.

Drug manufacturers, though they must be very careful in how they edit content on Wikipedia to avoid having a conflict of interest, should document and notify Wikipedia when content is inaccurate or incomplete. In fact, each Wikipedia article has a discussion area where a company representative could post the suggested changes or additions, leaving the broader community to determine if it should or shouldn’t be included. No, this isn’t a perfect solution, but at least the manufacturers would be doing their part to try to fix the inaccuracies. And the FDA should either establish clear guidelines around user-generated content, or let manufacturers do what’s right in trying to correct inaccurate information, without fear of repercussions.

Wikipedia has a role to play as well – it needs to embrace drug manufacturers and assume they have the right intent in ensuring accurate information is available to the public. Some might argue that drug manufacturers in the past have been caught trying to game the system by removing damaging information about their products. But the beauty of Wikipedia is that the community will find and fix those self-serving changes. The sins of a few shouldn’t punish everyone else’s access to accurate and complete health information.

Let’s step up and make some real and meaningful changes soon. The public’s health depends on it.

Beth Bengtson is principal at Hale Advisors, a healthcare marketing and communications company. You can email her at beth@haleadvisors.com or follower her on Twitter at @b2engt.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted October 15, 2013 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    Why would any doctor in their right mind take information from Wikipedia and use it as a source for medical advice? While the debate about the reliability of Wikipedia will wage forever, the real way to reference Wikipedia is simple. Look at the content on Wikipedia and if you feel it is credible, look at where the source of the information came from. Information in Wikipedia needs to be supported by a source. It is the source of the information on Wikipedia, not Wikipedia itself, that should be used as the basis for supporting any facts.

  2. Randy Perez
    Posted October 17, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I think the answer, despite how uncomfortable it makes us, is yes, some medical professionals will take Wikipedia articles on faith. It’s invariably one of the first two or three hits on almost any web search, and while I don’t know the actual statistic (does anyone, really?) I would guess it is 95% reliable, Some busy or lazy medical staff will find that good enough. As a patient I find that horrifying; as a person I can understand, if not condone it.

    Patients, on the other hand, are a hugely variable demographic, and it is safe to say that there will be a large proportion who will trust Wikipedia without reservation. It looks authoritative and uses lots of Latin terms, so it must reliable. This could influence a potentially life-saving decision about whether to seek immediate medical care.

    As a result I agree with the author, that trying improve the quality of medical content on Wikipedia is really the only answer. Ideally it would involve regulators, physicians, and drup manufacturers working together with Wikipedia. Whether that kind of cooperative effort will ever happen is a question.

  3. Posted October 30, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    The Pros and Cons of Pharma Employees Editing Wikipedia Articles
    By John Mack

    Should pharmaceutical companies appoint employees as Wikipedia “spokespeople” to perform all edits to Wikipedia articles on behalf of the company?

    That is the opinion of Bertalan Meskó, MD, founder and managing director of Webicina.com, who, in a June 13, 2012, open letter to pharmaceutical companies, invited them to “employ a Wikipedia editor if you want to make sure only evidence-based information is included in entries about your own products.”

    Open Letter to Pharma
    Dear Pharma Companies,

    The place of Wikipedia in the dissemination of medical information online is indisputable now. If you want your customers to access information about your products from the quality perspective and in the simplest way, you have to deal with using Wikipedia.

    Based on the pretty negative past encounters between pharma employees and Wikipedia editors (pharma employees trying to edit entries about their own products in a quite non-neutral way), we advise you to employ a Wikipedia editor if you want to make sure only evidence-based information is included in entries about your own products. Appointing someone from within your company as a “spokesperson” in Wikipedia who would perform all edits on behalf of the company is an excellent way to update those entries.

    For more details, please see our open access social media guide [see Webicina's "Open Access" Social Media Guidelines for Pharma].

    But basically, we, Wikipedians, are more than open to starting a discussion about this with you.

    I’m looking forward to working together.

    Boehringer Ingelheim responded to Berci via Twitter: “We look for patient safety issues & react. Its important to stick to Wikipedia policies too, so all transparent.” But when asked by Berci if BI had posted anything online about this, BI responded “No at this point in time we have not….yet,” seemingly leaving the door open.

    Recall that PhRMA — in comments submitted to the FDA (see “Accountability for Pharma Content on Social Media Sites”) — suggested that manufacturers would welcome correcting misinformation about their products posted to sites like Wikipedia if these corrections were not subject to FDA regulation.

    “FDA,” said PhRMA, “should confirm formally that, while it is not possible for manufacturers to monitor or correct all inaccurate information about their products on the Internet, such corrections by manufacturers in response to inaccurate postings will not be considered promotional labeling. FDA’s adoption of such a policy would thereby allow manufacturers to correct inaccurate information about their medicines on the Internet or social media (e.g., Wikipedia, Sidewiki, blogs, or other websites) if they should become aware of such information.”

    Past Transgressions
    Pharma does not have a stellar record when it comes to editing Wikipedia articles. According to Patients Not Patents, a group that “challenges the validity of medical patents before the United States Patent and Trademark Office,” Abbott Laboratories was a serial Wikipedia tamperer back in 2007. Here’s the press release that provided the evidence:

    Newly available data show that employees of Abbott Laboratories have been altering entries to Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, to eliminate information questioning the safety of its top-selling drugs.

    In July of 2007, a computer at Abbott Laboratories’ Chicago office was used to delete a reference to a Mayo Clinic study that revealed that patients taking the arthritis drug Humira faced triple the risk of developing certain kinds of cancers and twice the risk of developing serious infections. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2006.

    The same computer was used to remove articles describing public interest groups’ attempt to have Abbott’s weight-loss drug Meridia banned after the drug was found to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke in some patients.

    The site’s editors restored the deleted information, but Abbott’s activities illustrate drug companies’ eagerness to suppress safety concerns, said Jeffrey Light, Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Patients not Patents. “The argument that drug companies can be trusted to provide adequate safety information on their own products has been used by the pharmaceutical industry to fight against government regulation of consumer advertising. Clearly such trust is misplaced. As Abbott’s actions have demonstrated, drug companies will attempt to hide unfavorable safety information when they think nobody is watching.”

    The changes are part of over one thousand edits made from computers at Abbott’s offices. The data was obtained from WikiScanner, an independent site that allows users to look up anonymous changes to Wikipedia articles.

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