Americans and Canadians are getting vastly different search results when they look up prescription drug information online, says a study by researchers at the University of British Columbia.
Residents of the United States searching on Google for both brand and generic drug names get directed to the government-run National Library of Medicine. However, Canadians performing the same searches end up getting Wikipedia for generic drug searches, and drug company sites for brand searches, according to the study, published online February 22 by the Annals of Pharmacotherapy.
"The study also revealed that the most viewed drug pages on the Internet are those with the potential for addiction, like Oxycodone, and drugs for stigmatized conditions, such as antidepressants," says Michael Law, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor at the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research (CHSPR) at UBC. "It's important for the medical community to understand where patients are going for their drug information."
Previous research has found significant problems with both the information on Wikipedia, and in the drug information produced and distributed by pharmaceutical companies.
"These are not likely the most reliable and unbiased sources," says Law, also an assistant professor in the School of Population and Public Health (SPPH) at UBC. "Patients should be sure to verify the information they find online before making treatment decisions."
One of the reasons for this discrepancy in search results is a 2010 partnership between Google and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which returns NIH-sponsored drug information pages more prominently for searches by U.S. audiences. The UBC study shows that U.S. patients using Google.com would most often have the NIH-sponsored drug webpages, hosted by the National Library of Medicine, returned as the top result.
Meanwhile, U.S. residents using Bing and Yahoo, or Canadian residents using Google.ca for their searches, were led to Wikipedia pages or industry-sponsored sites most often, the study shows.
"We need to pay attention to the quality of online information and where it's coming from, especially for the types of drugs people have been searching for," says Law.
"Notwithstanding cable access to U.S. TV channels, which allow drug brand advertising, Canadians are at least partially shielded from American drug advertising on TV and in magazines," says Law. "Online, however, it's a bit more of the Wild West in terms of what Canadians will find. National rules and boundaries don't mean as much when you can view sites from around the world."
Law co-authored this paper with UBC colleagues Barbara Mintzes, assistant professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, and Steven Morgan, associate professor at CHSPR. Funding for this study was provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
- M. R. Law, B. Mintzes, S. G. Morgan. The Sources and Popularity of Online Drug Information: An Analysis of Top Search Engine Results and Web Page Views (March). Annals of Pharmacotherapy, 2011; DOI: 10.1345/aph.1P572
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