The State of Online Prescription Drug Info Today

Confusion for Consumers, but Far-Reaching Opportunities for Change
Apr. 1, 2014

As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration calls for further research into improving prescription drug advertising on television, experts from Dartmouth College and the University of Minnesota are calling for the nation to take a second look at online pharmaceutical information and promotion.

In their new book A Screenful of Sugar? Prescription Drug Websites Investigated, Jon Schommer, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical care and health systems at the University of Minnesota, and Dartmouth College linguistics professor Lewis Glinert, PhD, investigate the state of online prescription drug messaging.

Schommer and Glinert examine some of the most widely used sources of prescription drug information:

  • government-sponsored organizations such as PubMed Health;
  • information companies and TV-related sites, including, and;
  • health service provider sites such as and Walgreens;
  • manufacturers' brand sites; and
  • consumer-driven organizations (social media), including PatientsLikeMe, YouTube and Wikipedia.

For each drug information site, the team examined the oversight and responsibility, content, organization and language. They found that prescription drug laws governing communication have not been updated to reflect opportunities presented by the Internet, and that the state of prescription drug information and advertising is not getting better. According to Glinert, “we’ve been treading water for 30 years” in the regulatory realm.

"To understand the risks, benefits and directions for using medications, prescription drug websites must be transformed to be more informative, balanced and useful for consumers," stated Schommer and Glinert.

Using their combined expertise in consumer communication and decision-making, Schommer and Glinert outline the following recommendations for improving how paid and unpaid prescription drug content is presented online:

  1. Update policy to reflect how people digest online information. Ensuring readers receive crucial information like drug risk information from online sources poses a unique challenge. Risk information, even when present, may never be seen if left unclicked. Manufacturers need to do a better job of providing the public with complete and functional drug information, including risks alongside benefits.
  2. Empower consumers to make more informed decisions. The ultimate source of prescription drug information is a health care provider, but the Internet plays a large role in consumer self-education. A transparent information source organized like Wikipedia may be part of the answer.
  3. Better match people to the information they seek. Communications skills need to be unlocked to help any kind of consumer – especially the low literate and elderly – get a complete picture of the medicine they’re using or considering. Large parts of the American population find the Internet today to be a difficult place for finding drug information they’re able to make sense of and use. Information intended for patients needs to be rewritten in terms accessible to patients. 

The College of Pharmacy,


The College of Pharmacy, the only school of pharmacy in Minnesota, offers its program on the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses. Founded in 1892, the College of Pharmacy educates pharmacists and scientists and engages in research and practice to improve the health of the people of Minnesota and society. The college is part of the Academic Health Center, which is home to the University of Minnesota’s six health professional schools and colleges as well as several health-related centers and institutes.