Deciphering Pharmaceutical Information in Social Media

Study examines how pharmaceutical companies use social media to market products and interact with the public.

Are social media spreading misinformation on the potential benefits of certain drugs?

An article published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research discussed a 2015 analysis of the drug information available on popular social media sites Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The goal was to examine how pharmaceutical companies use social media to market their products and interact with the general public.

Authors noted that about 75% of US adults use social media frequently. Additionally, researchers were interested in what social media users were likely to find in drug-specific search results, and to what extent illegal pharmacies had a presence in those results.

Previous research suggests that about 40% of US adults have searched for health information on social media. Their study found that pharmaceutical companies avoid making drug claims on social media, but frequently engage in other direct-to-consumer advertising.

They also found significant evidence of unchecked drug information coming from other sources.

Drug Advertising and Social Media

In all its forms, direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of pharmaceutical products has been subject to criticism since its inception. As authors explained, DTCA proponents argue that it promotes disease awareness and patient involvement in health decisions.

Opponents warn that DTCA can promote misinformation and inappropriate prescribing and emphasize drug benefits over risks. To address these concerns, the FDA regulates the content of DTCA and categorizes it into 4 types.

(1) Print and (2) broadcast ads that make product claims are required to present a “fair balance” of the drug’s benefits and risks. (3) Reminder ads and (4) help-seeking ads do not say which condition(s) a product treats and are not subject to fair balance rules, authors noted.

Reminder ads name a drug and often include information on its dose or price. Help-seeking ads describe a health condition and encourage the public to discuss treatment options with a doctor.

The study noted that before Facebook changed its policy in 2011 to no longer allow its comment feature to be blocked, pharmaceutical companies used to maintain product-specific Facebook pages. Currently, most of those have been discontinued, but pharmaceutical companies still maintain a company page on social media sites.

Some companies establish their own social media policies that regulate user-generated content, while others do not.

How is Drug Information Presented in Social Media?

Researchers conducted 2 content analyses on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The company-specific analysis looked at the social media pages of the top 15 pharmaceutical companies in the world. Their drug-specific analysis looked at search results for the top 20 drugs purchased in the United States.

The company-specific analysis found that 40.7% (301 of 740) of companies’ social media posts contained information consistent with help-seeking DTCA. Only 1.6% (12 of 740) of company posts made drug product claims, yet one-third did not include risks, making them inadherent to FDA regulations. About 23.9% of social media users (177 of 740) interacted with companies via comments.

The drug-specific analysis found that most search results contained drug product claims (69.4%; 482 of 695). More claims mentioned only benefits (44.8%; 216 of 482) versus only risks (27.2%; 131 of 482). About 25% (150 of 603) of posts on Twitter and YouTube were presented as testimonials. A considerable portion of Facebook content (17%; 16 of 92) advertised illegal pharmacies.

Pharmaceutical companies’ social media pages averaged about 45,000 followers or subscribers. With many of these users actively interacting and sharing content, this indicates significant reach.

Discussion

Authors pointed out that online comments and testimonials have been shown to influence health behavior changes. Also, considering how quickly content can go viral, estimates of direct exposure grossly underestimate the cumulative influence of eDTCA on global audiences.

The researchers called on social media sites to monitor content and make meaningful policy changes that protect users from harmful drug information and illegal pharmacies. They also called on the FDA to finalize its eDTCA regulations and announce how oversight will be enacted.