Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mixing Social Media and Health Care: Concocting a Worst Case Scenario Using Big Pharma and Manipulated Web 2.0 Writers

Are there any downsides to the mixing of social media and health care? An interesting "Perspective" article by Boston academicians Jeremy Greene and Aaron Kesselheim in the latest New England Journal (not online yet, but check back for the link) says "yes" by taking the worst of both worlds: misinformed and manipulated Web 2.0 writers on one side and the misbehaving pharmaceutical industry on the other.

They point out that the pharmaceutical industry's marketing has generally been under very tight control by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Ironically, however, it was the FDA's guidelines surrounding direct to consumer (DTC) advertising that ultimately unleashed the glut of dry eye, erectile dysfunction and when diet 'n exercise-are-not-enough high cholesterol TV commercials. Well, following a November 2009 hearing on the matter, the FDA is now gearing up to issue guidance on the use of social media in pharmaceutical advertising. Once that happens, we can expect a considerable portion of the pharmaceutical industry's annual $4 billion budget to be spent on product-promoting bloggery, tweets and friending.

Which worries Drs. Greene and Kesselheim. They fear that authors of blogs, Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds that have only nice things to say about drugs or their manufacturers may be paid, biased, not credible or have hidden conflicts of interest. To deal with this, the authors suggest holding both the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA "responsible" for any significant misinformation and raise the possibility of creating a Web 2.0 FDA "seal of approval" to promote accurate content.

While worst case scenarios can be instructive, the DMCB isn't convinced that even the pharmaceutical industry's billions are up to the task of bending a truly massive and hyper-distributed social media global network to their will. What's more, pharma's tarnished reputation has already attracted the attention of legions of simultaneously smart and hostile bloggers, who seem more than ready to counter any product claims - including the credible ones. Last but not least, the DMCB is coming to doubt any laughably "responsible" Federal agency's ability to do anything quickly, cheaply or effectively. Better to let the bloggers establish their own reputations for transparency and pursue their own seals of journalistic/scientific excellence, perhaps through resources like this.

Last but not least, the DMCB is a believer in open and democratic discourse. Trying to influence the free flow of information, even if the filters are contrived by well-meaning do-gooders in some windowless room at the FDA, just seems to have too many downsides. If anything, the FDA should be working to promote an independent, skeptical and vibrant Web 2.0 scientific community. After that, they should get out of their way.

Image from Wikipedia

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