Experts Concerned Over Drug Firms' Sponsorship of Blogs, Online Forums

Experts are concerned about a growing trend in which pharmaceutical companies are paying bloggers and members of online communities to promote their products, NPR's "Shots" reports.

Drugmakers Becoming Active on Social Media

Many drugmakers have taken steps to increase their social media presence.

For example, Dennis Urbaniak -- head of diabetes at Sanofi U.S. -- says that "[g]etting involved in social media is a critical component of serving the diabetes community." Urbaniak has overseen his company's creation of a diabetes-focused blog, Twitter feed, Facebook page and online diabetes dictionary.

In addition, Sanofi sponsors bloggers who endorse its products on their personal websites.

Kerri Sparling -- a diabetes blogger who receives no-cost products from two pharmaceutical companies -- said she believes that drugmakers' sponsorship of blogs and forums can be beneficial because it allows the companies to hear what an online community says about their products and "[make] the changes we're requesting so they can improve their sales."

Experts Raise Concerns

However, experts and advocacy groups worry that promotional content on diabetes blogs and forums could mislead patients who are looking for medical information and guidance online. 

Jason Bronner - a University of California-San Diego Medical Center doctor who is leading a study about whether social networking helps in diabetes management -- said, "Patients are more likely to get information from the Internet than they are from the doctor."

Jeff Chester -- executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy -- said that drugmakers can promote their products in a deceptive way by sponsoring online testimonials that appear to come from "people like you," but actually come from individuals who are "paid [by] or allied with a drug company."

In response to such concerns, FDA is developing guidelines on how drug companies should use social media (Silverman, "Shots," NPR, 12/3).

Steven Merahn
This is also true for Health IT blogs -- we need more than just 'disclosure' of sponsorship but need to be careful about frank promotion. A recent blog post by a well known consultant and sometime iHealthbeat columnist recently ended with the sentence: "Elsevier is a paid sponsor of this blog". I wonder if Elsevier had not been a paid sponsor of the blog, whether the comments about their ClinicalKey product would be so glowing. Clearly there was not much critical thinking about it, because it would be impossible for someone of the authors considerable talent to miss its considerable flaws nor look at the issue from more than one perspective...I believe in journalism that's called a 'puff piece'...

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