Study Finds Errors in Drug Websites

By Pat Anson, Editor

Nearly six out of ten Americans adults have gone online for health information in the past year, usually to identify medical conditions and treatments, according to the Pew Research Center. But just how reliable is the information they found?

A research study led by drug maker Purdue Pharma found that several websites where physicians and consumers get information about medications contain misinformation that could potentially jeopardize patient safety.

Purdue and 10 other pharmaceutical companies evaluated five websites; Medscape, Lexicomp Online, Epocrates Online, and RxList, which are referred to as online drug information compendia (ODIC).  

The sites typically offer information on side effects, warnings, safety, and dosages for thousands of brand name and generic drugs. Medscape, for example,  calls itself “the most authoritative and accessible point-of-care medical reference available” on the Internet.

Although the content is “informative and easily accessible,” researchers say the websites contain misinformation that could lead to drugs being misused.

"This is an important study that highlights the need for HCPs (healthcare providers) and consumers to use multiple sources when seeking drug information, as there were a surprisingly large number of errors, including inaccuracies and outdated information, across various drug summaries in online drug information compendia," said lead author Amarita Randhawa, Senior Manager of Medical Services at Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin.

"As ODIC use expands, it is crucial to ensure drug summaries are up-to-date, accurate and complete. Purdue Pharma has implemented an ongoing compendia review process, which served as the model for this collaborative initiative." 

The 11 participating companies evaluated 270 drug summaries on the five websites and found a median average of 782 errors. Dosage and administration, patient education, and warnings and precautions were the categories with the greatest number of errors. Most of the errors invbolved information that was incomplete, inaccurate or omitted. 

The study, which is being published in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy, does not identify what drugs were evaluated, only that they are used to treat a variety of different conditions, including pain, diabetes, infectious diseases and cardiovascular problems.

“Boxed warning information for product B was incomplete because the warning regarding addiction, abuse, and misuse was not provided,” was one of the errors cited.

“The warning that product F may cause dizziness and somnolence and impair the ability to drive or operate machinery as described in the Medication Guide was missing,” was another error.

The two consumer oriented websites, and RxList, had fewer errors on average than the other three websites, which are mainly designed for physicians and healthcare providers.

“Although the intent of this study was not to compare one compendium with another, it should not be surprising that HCP-ODIC contained a greater number of errors compared with consumer-ODIC because of the detailed and indepth nature of HCP-focused drug summaries,” the researchers said.

The Consumer and Patient Health Information Section (CAPHIS) has compiled a list 100 health websites it considers trustworthy. The list can be accessed by clicking here.

The National Institutes of Health also has tips on finding reliable health information online.