Wikipedia is Also a Pharma Marketing Issue

October 14, 2013
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Pharmaceutical Executive

Writing last week on this blog, Beth Bengtson, principal at healthcare marketing and communications company Hale Advisors, highlighted the problem posed for public health by Wikipedia.

Writing last week on this blog, Beth Bengtson, principal at healthcare marketing and communications company Hale Advisors, highlighted the problem posed for public health by Wikipedia.

Peter Houston

In her post, Beth linked back to a report on Manhattan Research’s 2009 ‘Taking the Pulse’ study that showed medical articles on Wikipedia receiving about 150 million page views per month. I’m betting it’s way more than that in 2013.

In Health Online 2013, the Pew Research Center said one third of Americans have turned to the Internet to diagnose a medical condition at some time; almost three quarters had looked for health information online in the previous 12 months.

A July 2013 study from New York based healthcare marketing company Makovsky Health and research firm Kelton shows that more than 20 percent of these searches will end up on Wikipedia - that’s a lot of people going to the online encyclopaedia for help with their health.

Whether it’s 150 million or 250 million pages views, the concern is that the general public is accessing inaccurate and potentially dangerous health information online. A recent paper by Dr Thomas Fergus, of Baylor University in Waco, Texas concluded that ‘Cyberchondria’ – compulsively searching the Internet for information about particular real or imagined symptoms of illness – could be “exacerbated by a glut of sometimes dubious material available at the click of a mouse.”

While acknowledging that drug manufacturers must avoid conflict of interest, Beth calls on the industry to help fix the inaccuracies and incomplete information on Wikipedia. “Stop sticking our head in the sand and take accountability to fix this very concerning public health issue,” she wrote.

Work to improve publicly accessible health information on Wikipedia is underway.  WikiProject Medicine describes itself as a “an area for focused collaboration among Wikipedians”, where anyone who wants to help improve the quality of medical and health content on Wikipedia can raise issues and collaborate on fixing them. Even pharma people.

The New York Times recently reported on another project to raise the quality of healthcare articles in Wikipedia. Medical students at the University of California, San Francisco, will be able to get course credit for editing articles.

Good news.

The bad news is that this will all take time; meanwhile the public is still accessing unverified information. Potentially more worrying, so are their doctors. Manhattan Research’s ‘Taking the Pulse’ data showed almost half of practicing US physicians surveyed use Wikipedia as a source of medical information; a 2011 survey of hundreds of doctors across Europe put the number using Wikipedia as high as 60 percent.

I come away from those numbers wondering, “Why are doctors using Wikipedia?”

I get why patients use it. As the world’s sixth largest website, people are familiar with it. And it’s omnipresent in the search results - type almost anything into Google and a Wikipedia article is almost guaranteed to be in the first few results.

Other than sites like WebMD (which claims 55% of health searches according to Makovsky and Kenon), the ordinary patient in the street doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. Doctors, on the other hand, should have more information than they know what do with.

Sure they’re human, they Google stuff just like the rest of us. But is the fact that HCPs are turning to the web first not a clue to Pharma companies that they need to make their information more accessible online.

It’s unlikely that any company, even a Big Pharma company, will ever elbow Wikipedia off the search-engines top spots, but a regular stream or relevant, specific content has a chance to feature alongside it. I’m not sure how it sits today, but if you typed ‘What is a magazine’ into Google earlier this year, a guest post on my Flipping Pages blog sat right under Wikipedia’s answer to that enduring media question.

While I was writing this, I saw a tweet from Lee Odden, CEO of Minneapolis-based agency TopRank Online Marketing. He wrote, “Google is an answers machine. Give Google and customers what they want with content that answers questions.”

In a previous post on this blog, Catch on to content marketing, I wrote that Pharma’s content-marketing opportunity is to make sure that when a doctor or a patient goes searching for health information that the right content is there waiting for them. In the same post I quoted Dr Candice O’Sullivan of Australia’s Wellmark agency describing Pharma as “an industry well used to the rigours of consistently producing high-quality content.”

And yet, millions of patients and doctors still go to Wikipedia every month for the answers to their questions. I think that’s what’s known on the internet as a #Fail.

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