Treating the Fake Health News Syndrome

Updated: Dec 16, 2019


Words by James Coker

The age of the internet has ushered in a desire for quick and easy access to information. Healthcare is no exception; for instance, it has been found that 1 in 20 Google searches are on health-related topics. Additionally, the ease of access to information facilitated by the internet is a leading factor in the increasing role patients want to play in their treatment. To respond effectively to these two realities, should pharma now make itself a reliable and unbiased source of information regarding available therapy approaches?


1 in 20 Google searches are on health-related topics

“Patients have a completely different role from the one that they used to have in the past: from being passive or reactive to more proactive”, comments Alfredo Barón de Juan, EVP of Global Commercial Operations and Chief Commercial Officer, Almirall. “They talk to the doctors, look for information, talk to each other, and look for solutions beyond the product to understand all about their conditions and the reasons behind the prescriptions that they get.”


The sheer quantity of websites providing unfiltered access to health information poses certain problems for these patients. “There are a couple of key issues patients face when going online to find information about their condition”, explains Sue Farrington, Chair of the Board, Patient Information Forum. “The first is knowing whether they can trust the information: is it evidence-based, accurate, and up-to-date? The next is about the accessibility of the information and whether it meets people’s health literacy needs.”


There has certainly been wide circulation of fictitious health stories in recent years; one analysis of the issue has shown that, of the 20 most shared stories on Facebook in 2016 containing the word ‘cancer’ in the title, over half of the reported claims were discredited by doctors or health authorities. Such falsehoods can be extremely harmful, including damaging trust in conventional treatments – a recent example being the MMR vaccine – and escalating the use of alternative, unproven therapies.


Patients have a completely different role from the one that they used to have in the past: from being passive or reactive to more proactive

Traditionally, aside from specific product information, such as patient information leaflets in medication packets, pharma has had limited direct interaction with the end-users of their products. A 2017 study by Graber et al. outlines this, showing that 38 of 40 pharma websites they reviewed had information labelled for HCPs only. Such a lack of focus on patients in this regard arguably needs to change.


“In the current environment, we are obliged to talk, listen, and understand patient needs. Obviously, there are new channels that are changing the way that we communicate with our customers and patients, not only the traditional channels, but we also have websites, apps, and social media to support patients”, adds Barón de Juan.


Pharma is in a unique position to provide evidence-based information about treatment due to the considerable time and resources invested into the research, development, manufacturing, and marketing of products. Can they translate this in a way that is understandable and easily accessible for patients, helping them better understand the proven treatment options available?


Farrington suggests that there is more pharma can do in this regard. “Consideration also needs to be given to producing materials that enable a shared conversation between the patient and the clinician to help the patient make a decision”, she says. “Much of the information pharma produces is designed to be used post-prescription, but patients may be given a choice of medications in many long-term conditions.”


In some areas, such as IVF treatment, this type of online utility is starting to be delivered by pharma companies. For example, Ferring has developed a website dedicated to providing information for patients thinking about or currently undergoing IVF treatment, helping them through each stage of the journey. “Patients are becoming more educated, talking to Dr Google. I think it’s good that patients empower themselves: they want to know what’s out there”, comments Klaus Dugi, EVP, Chief Medical Officer, Ferring. “We obviously have to be very careful as a company and have the correct dialogue with patients because we can never be seen to promote our medicines, which is right as that has to be done with a physician who can interpret our messages better. But there are still ways to help patients, to make materials available.”


One major benefit to the pharma industry of providing this type of service is the potential enhancement of its reputation amongst patients. Becoming a bigger source of non-product-related treatment information could show the sector as proactively reaching out to patients more directly and willing to provide them with a philanthropic service.

Working more directly with patients to create the health information could also help improve trust in the industry. “Pharma could do more to involve patients in the development and testing of their material to ensure it is appropriate and understandable. This will become increasingly important as medicines and treatments become more technical and personalised”, adds Farrington.


Most importantly, it could increase trust in safe and effective evidence-based medicines, while substantially reducing the impact of fake health news.



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