Is your patient safety in the hands of strangers?
“What medications do you use and in what doses?”
“I used the medicine for 3 months, but it gave me strange hot flashes. My pulse would rise and I would feel anxious. At times it felt like I would pass out. I don’t recommend it to anyone.”
“You can safely increase the dose considerably from what’s written on the package. For many users the medicine only begins to work after doubling the dose.”
People these days use the internet actively to seek information about health and illnesses. They are not afraid to discuss their symptoms and treatments openly on discussion panels where others cannot identify them. In addition to finding diagnoses for illnesses, people are also interested in medications. According to a survey carried out by Terveystalo, the largest healthcare service company in Finland, 63% of Finns have sought information about medicines and medications online.
In a country where many people live far away from the nearest health centre, openly sharing and finding information is considered for the most part to be a positive thing. However, what if the people offering the information online are more likely to be self-taught amateurs rather than pharmaceutical professionals?
Why don’t pharmaceutical companies participate in online discussions?
Surprisingly, pharmaceutical companies in Finland do not participate in online discussions concerning the effects of their products. Can it be that the pharmaceuticals industry has not yet woken up to the reality of online communications?
“Pharmaceutical companies do in fact actively monitor online discussions. When it comes to prescription medications, however, they have to be very careful regarding the messages they share with consumers so that their participation in the online discussion is not considered simply as disguised marketing. Even when they encounter incorrect or even unsafe advice about medications, representatives of pharmaceutical companies are quite limited in the ways they can influence the discussion,” explains Susanna Heinonen, Pharmacovigilance Manager at Algol Pharma.
“Pharmaceutical companies in Finland must comply with ethical guidelines, which state in part that consumer information about prescription medications may contain only information that is in line with the summary of product characteristics or package leaflet. When it comes to questions related to personal health, consumers should be instructed to turn to their physician or other healthcare professional. The participation of pharmaceutical companies in online discussions is purposely restricted, in other words,” adds Jaakko Laurila from Pharma Industry Finland.
The marketing guidelines for pharmaceuticals are based on the desire to ensure that those in need of medical care receive impartial information about different treatment alternatives.
“Information about illnesses must be based on the illness itself and identifying it. The pharmaceutical industry is very careful that treatment alternatives are not offered in advertising or online discussions in such a way that consumers are encouraged to turn to a physician with the intention of obtaining a specific medication, which could happen if representatives of pharmaceutical companies begin moderating discussions,” Laurila adds.
Even though pharmaceutical companies have the expertise to participate in health discussions, the industry’s strict self-regulation and fear or being fined by the authorities effectively dissuade them from doing so. The fine for disguised marketing, for example, is 15,000 euros on average.
“Disguised marketing could be in the form of a website maintained by a pharmaceutical company that offers health information but does not present impartial information about different treatment methods. Descriptions of the company’s own treatment methods may also include marketing words and phrases. Another form of disguised marketing could be a consumer survey commissioned by a pharmaceutical company in which the results are published together with information about a new product to treat the ailments mentioned by consumers in the survey,” Laurila continues.
Pharmaceutical must be careful, therefore, not to influence the decisions of consumers regarding prescription medications, yet at the same time respond to any suspicions regarding possible side effects.
“Here too regulations require all that all employees of pharmaceutical companies receive annual training in issues related to pharmacovigilance. In practice, every employee of a pharmaceutical company should know how to respond and whom to notify if they notice side effects from one of the company’s products being discussed either online or anywhere else, for that matter. Finland is one of the global leaders in pharmacovigilance, and there is international demand for the Medicinevillage.com pharmacovigilance training service that was developed in Finland with support from Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation,” says Hanna-Maija Koponen-Piironen, Director, Pharmaceutical Services, at Algol Pharma.
Common sense needed when finding out about medicines
Pharmaceutical companies are subject do different regulations than consumers, in other words. When taking part in discussions about medicines, consumers should bear in mind the following:
- Remember that what works for you does not necessarily work for others. Online discussions do not always include all the facts, and the effects of combining drugs are better discussed with a doctor.
- Any side effects should be reported to your doctor, who can then take further measures with the manufacturer to investigate and improve the treatment method.
- Think about who is providing the information and whether that person is a pharmaceuticals expert. Consider also the person’s motives. The Finnish Medicines Agency Fimea offers impartial information about drug safety.
- Check whether the information is up to date and what it is based on. When considering the effectiveness of different medications, do not rely on the opinions of private individuals without solid facts to back them up.
- Consider whether you would be ready to take responsibility if you provided pharmaceutical advice to strangers. It is better to suggest that the person in need of medical care visit a health clinic or pharmacy.