We are well aware of how the Internet has transformed patients’ information seeking behavior and their relationship with their physicians. In addition, user-generated content has become a primary source of health content for many online health searchers. For example, as illustrated in this study by my firm Envision Solutions, Wikipedia is quite popular.
Given this, it is not surprising that pharmaceutical companies, public relations firms and others are very interested about the information featured on Wikipedia. Unfortunately, in some cases, they have made edits to Wikipedia that don’t pass the red face test. According to the group Patients Not Patents:
“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.”
The group went on to say these edits “illustrate drug companies’ eagerness to suppress safety concerns.” With this new information about Abbott and the recent revelations about AstraZeneca, unfortunately critics of the drug industry have ample evidence to support their claims.
Many pharmaceutical executives are preaching about the benefits of operating more transparently and providing the public with accurate (and relatively unbiased) information. However, others are still operating under assumption that “command and control” communications tactics are still effective. Listen up: The world is changing and you can’t hide any more. There are lots of people out there looking for evidence of drug company malfeasance and they are more than willing to expose it. No company is perfect, but drug firms have to do a better job helping their employees understand the rules of the game and that inappropriate online behavior is unacceptable.
Overall, I think that editing Wikipedia to improve the accuracy of information posted on the site is okay – even though the editors of the site would prefer this to be done via its “discussion pages.” However, changing information about a drug’s safety or efficacy profile – especially if the data are published in a peer-reviewed journal – may violate FDA regulations and should be of great concern to drug firm compliance officers.
We’re living in a world of radical transparency. You can run, but you can’t hide.