Wikipedia, along with Google and WebMD, is where more than half of all Americans turn to for health information on prescription drugs.
Researchers at the Blackstone Group (London, United Kingdom), Harvard Medical School (Boston, MA, USA), and other institutions selected new drug-safety communications related to prescription medicines that were issued by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA; Silver Spring, MD, USA) over a 2-year period between January 1, 2011, and December 31, 2012. They then evaluated Google searches and Wikipedia page views and content for each drug, looking specifically for references to safety warnings.
The researchers identified safety warnings for 22 prescription drugs indicated for a range of clinical conditions, including primary hypertension, chronic myelogenous leukemia, and hepatitis C. Collectively, these drugs triggered 13 million searches on Google and 5 million Wikipedia page views annually during the study period. FDA safety warnings were associated with an 82% increase, on average, in Google searches for the drugs during the week after the announcement and a 175% increase in views of Wikipedia pages for the drugs on the day of the announcement, as compared with baseline trends.
More than a third of the Wikipedia pages in the study were updated within two weeks of an FDA announcement. More prevalent diseases were more likely to be updated in this time frame than the less prevalent conditions. About 23% of the Wikipedia pages were updated more than two weeks after an FDA announcement, taking, on average, 42 days to post the new information. More than a third of the website's pages remained unchanged more than one year later. The study was published on June 26, 2014, in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).
“Despite debates over its credibility, Wikipedia is reportedly the most frequently consulted online health care resource globally,” concluded senior author John D. Seeger, PharmD., PhD, of Harvard. “Wikipedia pages typically appear among the top few Google search results and are among the references most likely to be checked by internet users. The FDA should have a greater online presence in social media, as well as extend partnerships to popular online resources.”
The FDA has already experimented with working with WebMD and sending official FDA alerts to registered users. The authors' findings suggest that having the FDA update and/or automatically communicate drug safety information to Wikipedia pages could potentially be beneficial. The authors also suggested giving academic credit to medical and university students for editing and updating articles online.
“As a public health and regulatory agency, it is a priority for the FDA to provide consumers with clear and accurate information about the safety of the drugs they take,” commented FDA spokesperson Tara Goodin. “While there are a number of useful websites that contain information about FDA-approved products, ultimately, FDA.gov remains the best resource to find accurate and timely information about the safety and effectiveness of approved drug products.”
Harvard Medical School
US Food and Drug Administration