FDA is considering issuing new guidelines regarding regulation of pharmaceutical use of the Internet for promoting drugs. The drug industry and online service providers like Google and Yahoo! hammered into the FDA’s head how important the Internet is for health information seekers. Speaker after speaker made the point: the Internet can no longer be ignored if you are serious about protecting the public health. “The trend towards Americans seeking health information online generally is considered to be positive from the standpoint of improved healthcare,” said Yahoo! in comments submitted to the FDA.

A new study, however, offers evidence suggesting that “using the Internet for health purposes [is] associated with increased depression,” which doesn’t sound like a health and wellbeing improvement! “The increase [in depression] may be due to increased rumination, unnecessary alarm, or over-attention to health problems,” said the researchers (see “Effects of Internet Use on Health and Depression: A Longitudinal Study“; Bessière K, Pressman S, Kiesler S, Kraut R; J Med Internet Res 2010 (Mar 12); 12(1):e6).

“It may be that one source of the increase in depression is the misinformation people get from factually incorrect websites,” say the researchers. “This may lead to inaccurate self-diagnosis, poor health behaviors (eg, herbal remedies), or potentially unnecessary worry (for both healthy and ill populations).” This is similar to the argument used by the drug industry in support of more lax regulation by the FDA. If consumers and patients had easier access to FDA-approved information, it would counterbalance the bad information, claims the industry.

Use of Social Networks May Decrease Depression
The study also found that “using the Internet to communicate with friends and family was associated with declines in depression.” Although not studied in this research, perhaps online social networking with other patients also is associated with declines in depression.

This study was conducted between 2000 and 2002 and the researchers recognize that the Internet and access to it have changed dramatically since then, especially the rise of social networking resources. “The quality of health information and support online may have improved,” say the researchers, “and Internet users today may no longer use Internet resources in the same fashion as they did during the time period of our study…”

Perhaps if drug companies could more easily supply hopeful messages about effective treatments via the Internet, online health information seekers may be less depressed. Online health information seekers may even be the opposite of depressed — ie, joyful — if drug companies were to support open and authentic social networks where patients can exchange personal information and share stories.

Beware of the Disgruntled Patient!
Drug companies, however, should NOT OWN or CONTROL these kinds of social networks because of DPS — the “disgruntled patient syndrome,” which was most recently brought to light by the sanofi-aventis VOICES Facebook Fiasco (see “Disgruntled Patient Shuts Down sanofi-aventis Facebook Page“). As I have said previously, Pharma Should Leave Unmoderated SM Discussions to 3rd Parties (see here).