What should Pharma do?
Until a system of article review and approval is created, and accepted, should pharma companies take the task on themselves?
Given the broad usage of Wikipedia content by big Pharma's target audience, the site's presence at the very top of the search
engines and company focus on ROI, you might have thought they would already be courting Wikipedia aggressively. Easier said
than done—there isn't really a Wikipedia to talk to.
Cochrane’s Long Coattails
Cole describes it as "an incoherent bunch of individuals with radically different opinions on just about everything, especially
on the best way forward." But he and other Wikipedia medical editors are keen to discuss the best way to ensure the reliability
of pharmaceutical content while safeguarding the independence and neutrality of the encyclopaedia. "I believe all large companies
should have one or two Wikipedia experts on their payroll," he says.
This is an idea put to the industry in an open letter from Hungarian Medical futurist Bertalan Meskó, in June 2012. His idea
was simple: pharmaceutical companies should name an employee who could make 100%-transparent edits to Wikipedia entries related
to their own products. Two years on, he says has had acknowledgement from several pharma companies that this is the correct
way for them to tackle Wikipedia content, but none have actually done it.
Social business evangelist and STweM health conversation blog author Andrew Spong is a strong supporter of the pharma Wikipedians
concept, but doesn't think companies recognize Wikipedia as a business-critical need. He thinks the industry uses concerns
over regulatory transgression as an avoidance strategy, but challenges it to change.
"The industry repeatedly lays claim in its corporate communications to a commitment to enlarging the store of humanity's health
and well-being," says Spong. "We, the healthcare consumers of the Internet, respectfully request to cash in that promissory
His hope is that pharma companies will ultimately take on their own Wikipedians, especially as he thinks the regulatory "smokescreen"
is falling away. Spong pointed to the February 2014 informal guidance on digital communications from the UK's Prescription
Medicines Code of Practice Authority. "When an industry's own regulators observe that pharma could consider taking a more
"proactive" role with regard to Wikipedia, the only conclusion one can reach is that the industry is being too conservative
in its approach," he say.
A moral duty
Like Wikipedian Cole, Spong doesn't see any major conflict in pharma companies getting involved in the creation and editing
of Wikipedia content. Contrary, he believes whatever public health risk there is in Wikipedia content would be mitigated rather
than exacerbated by the industry's direct involvement.
"The active curation of all entries relevant to its business would provide each pharmaceutical company with a copper-bottomed
means of becoming the authoritative source of information on the Internet about its own products," Cole says.
He believes Wikipedia's value to pharma should be self-evident.
"In my opinion, the pharmaceutical industry has a moral and ethical duty to assume an active role in the editing of relevant
Wikipedia entries," he says. "The trust-generative, credibility-boosting benefits that a visible and enduring commitment to
editing Wikipedia in a balanced, approvable manner would also bring are secondary, but surely also valuable."
Whether or not Wikipedia ever delivers on WikiProject Medicine's ambition of providing free access to the sum of all medical
knowledge, I am optimistic that the quality of information on the site will continue to improve. In the long-term, the Wikipedia
community will find a way to work with the pharmaceutical industry, HCPs, patient groups, non-profits, professional agencies
and regulators to validate its medical content.
In the meantime, I would refer the public and HCPs to the advice given in Tom Simonite's MIT Technology Review article. Treat Wikipedia the way you would an urgent care center, not as a replacement for established medical advice but
as a cheap and fast place to go first. "A place to get you pointed in the right direction," Simonite writes. Like Simonite,
I think Wikipedia does a pretty good job at that.
Peter Houston is a media and marketing expert and the founder of Flipping Pages Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org