Campbell-Ewald Health, a consultancy company, performed a proprietary “Digital Diagnosis” of 58 direct-to-consumer (DTC) pharmaceutical product Web sites and found them to be incomprehensible to 45% of the US population (see Campbell-Ewald Health Announces “Digital Diagnosis” Findings). OK, maybe not incomprehensible, but not fully understandable by a segment of the population with a 6th grade reading level.

More than a few experts noted that this is “not news,” including Bill Vaughan, senior policy analyst with Consumers Union, who said “The American public are not doctors and have trouble understanding [drug information], and doctors have trouble conveying it, and we all need to work together to do a better job.”

Nope, the American public are not doctors. But, what about doctors? It’s interesting that Mr. Vaughan asserts that doctors have trouble conveying drug information to patients. Recently, a grassroots coalition of healthcare advocates launched a campaign dubbed “Just Say Know to Prescription Drugs,” which attempts to make healthcare professionals more accountable for conveying this information to patients.

I downloaded the form that this campaign is asking patients to hand to their doctors and pharmacists. The form instructs patients as follows:

  • List all the prescription medications in you are taking in the form below. (make copies as needed)
  • Visit or send this form (keep a copy) to the prescribing doctors, pharmacists and other health care providers. Ask for an itemized listing below, of benefits, the side-effects of each drug.
  • Ask the prescribing doctor to list references for non-drug alternatives.
  • Ask for the healthcare provider’s signature acknowledging that, they have briefed you to the best of their ability.

I intend to fax copies of the form to my doctors and pharmacists and see what their reactions will be.

I fully expect that they will direct me to the product Web sites. Circle closed!

Problem with Web Standards
The Campbell-Ewald audit also found that half of the pharmaceutical Web sites did not adhere to generally accepted Web standards established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to ensure usability for all consumers, including full accessibility for disabled Web users.

Web standards are guidelines for:
– Platform variation
– Browser type
– Consistency in hyperlinks & title text

Implementation of standards improve:
– Consumer usability and satisfaction
– Accessibility for disabled users
– Organic search results

Lori Laurent Smith, director of Campbell-Ewald Health, told me that 19% of Americans fall into the disabled category and sight-impaired people who use software reader programs to access drug sites may have a problem with sites that are not compliant with W3C standards.

““If you use bold text to highlight the drug’’s name, which is often the case,”” says Smith, ““these readers simply stop reading when they get to the product name. I cannot think of anything more frustrating when you are trying to learn more about a product.””

It’s a bit ironic, however, that even if the readers continued to do their job, almost half of the people using them would not understand the information being given them.

Smith pointed out some other problems that incompatible sites have — problems more marketers might be concerned about. Namely, incompatible sites will also have problems getting the highest ranking among natural search results in search engines.

I was a bit surprised that so many product Web sites were not developed to be compatible with the latest Web standards, especially since pharmaceutical companies spend good money — maybe $500,000 to $1 million per site — hiring specialists to create these sites. The products we are talking about are the top advertised brands, not the ones scrimping on promotion.

Benefit vs Risk on Drug Web Sites
Campbell-Ewald also looked at the presentation of benefit and risk information on product Web sites. They didn’’t do a quantitative analysis like I did with print DTC ads (see XXX), but they asked the following questions:

  • Will the average consumer understand how the drug works and what they can expect?
  • Are warning signs and symptoms explained clearly and simply?

All this got me to thinking about how benefit and risk information is presented on product Web sites and how one can determine if there is proper ““balance” in the presentation.

For TV and print ads, balance might mean equal time and space, respectively, devoted to benefits and risks. On the Web, however, time and space are unlimited and are not useful measures.

What IS important on the Web is NAVIGATION, specifically how easy it is to find the information Navigation is one of the criteria that Campbell-Ewald evaluated, but Smith didn’’t share those results with me.