Privacy groups ask FTC to probe drug companies' online practices

A complaint alleges that websites allow the collection of patient data and physicians' prescribing patterns for marketing purposes.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Dec. 27, 2010

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Four privacy advocacy groups have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, asking it to investigate the online marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies.

The Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog, the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups and the World Privacy Forum filed a 144-page complaint in late November alleging that certain websites allow pharmaceutical companies to collect patient information and information on physicians' prescribing and treatment patterns to market health-related services or drugs directly to the consumers or physicians.

Among the sites the complaint targeted are Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, which operate data and advertising exchanges. The complaint also mentions by name Sermo, the social media site for physicians that has a partnership with Pfizer,, Everyday Health, Health Central, QualityHealth and WebMD, among others. The complaint says the websites do not offer sufficient disclosure that marketing is taking place. None of the companies has formally responded to the complaint at this article's deadline.

The complaint states that the pharmaceutical marketers collect consumers' personal information from certain websites without their knowledge. That information is matched to data it collects on the type of websites visited and the searches conducted by those consumers to create consumer portfolios. That information is used to market directly to consumers with specific health conditions or concerns, or to physicians who treat a particular type of patient.

Jeff Chester, founder and director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said the Web has been portrayed as an empowering tool for consumers because of the easy access to health information that helps them make better health decisions. But most consumers don't know their online activity is being monitored for marketing purposes, and the resulting advertising could be a risk to their health.

"Consumers are being marketed to online in a very unfair way," Chester said.

Jeffrey K. Francer, assistant general counsel to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said that although the organization is still reviewing the complaint, "it's important to remember that there are clear public health benefits for health care providers and patients to be able to access truthful, scientifically accurate and ... [Food and Drug Administration]-regulated information about medicines online from the companies that research and develop them."

"PhRMA would be concerned by any effort to weaken the FDA's oversight over this important communication," he said.

Chester said the problem is that the FTC monitors marketing activity in most every other type of media except the Internet. "Even the people in the [advertising] industry say it's the Wild West," he said. "This is why I have come in to tell the trade commission you have to be the sheriff here and create some rules for the digital world when it comes to how pharmaceutical and health advertising occurs online."

A study in the Oct. 13 online issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that pharmaceutical marketers were using social media sites to promote drugs and treatment methods, some of which were not approved by the FDA. Many times, the promotions were presented as testimonials that appeared to be from other members of the online forums.

Chester said he has found that the marketers participate in the communities to find the most influential people. They target those community members first, because they are the most likely to influence others.

The FTC "has been irresponsible by not looking at this, and our complaint is a wake-up call to the FTC," he said. "And they tell me they are taking our complaint seriously."

Francer said PhRMA has suggested to the FDA responsible standards for online promotional activities about medicine. PhRMA hopes to continue working with the FDA on the issue, he added.

"Do not track"

In a matter unrelated to the complaint about pharmaceutical marketing, the FTC issued a preliminary staff report on Dec. 1 that outlines a privacy framework for consumers. The report proposes implementation of a "do not track" mechanism that would allow consumers to decide whether their online browsing and searching activities could be monitored for data collection by marketers.

The report acknowledges that efforts to self-regulate the industry "have been too slow, and up to now have failed to provide adequate and meaningful protection."

The preliminary staff report was approved by a 5-0 vote. The FTC is accepting public comment on the report until Jan. 31, 2011.

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External links

"Online Social Networking by Patients with Diabetes: A Qualitative Evaluation of Communication with Facebook," Journal of General Internal Medicine, published online Oct. 13 (link)

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