It’s not unusual for consumers to go online to gather information about diseases and treatments. Nor is it uncommon for consumers to post comments on social-media platforms about how well certain prescription and nonprescription drugs and devices work—even when used in ways not originally intended. And while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can’t regulate what consumers say about the medical products they use, it can regulate how and what manufacturers say about their products online.
The FDA was late to the game with issuing guidance to industry on the use of social media and other online forms of communications. It wasn’t until June of this year that the FDA released 2 draft guidances with recommendations to help manufacturers and their representatives accurately communicate online about prescription drugs and medical devices. (After all, Facebook was founded in 2004 and Twitter in 2006; Google and Yahoo have been around even longer. That’s a long time for pharmaceutical companies and device manufacturers to figure out how they should and shouldn’t promote their products online.)
The first guidance guides companies in how to present risk and benefit information about their products using platforms with character space limitations, such as Twitter and the paid search results links on Google and Yahoo. The second guidance focuses on how companies should deal with and go about correcting third-party information about their products that is incorrect. Both guidances are in draft form and the FDA is soliciting public comment about them.
Even before these guidances were released, the FDA was monitoring companies to ensure they weren’t making inaccurate or inappropriate claims about their products. Since 2011, the FDA has issued 11 warning letters to companies for posting on Twitter false, misleading, or unapproved claims, or misbranding products.
And then there’s the Like button on Facebook that has led the FDA to target 2 companies for liking unapproved claims about their products made by customers. The FDA’s position is that a company’s Likes are equivalent to endorsements or promotions, and companies are prohibited from promoting their products for unapproved uses.
The takeaway message to industry is clear: the FDA is watching. Think before you click.