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Social media: a tool for diabetics or a platform for consumer deception?
Nowadays there seems to be an online support community for just about everything--including diabetes.
A simple Google search turns up dozens of websites and resources, ranging from chat rooms and forum boards to lifestyle and diet tips for newly diagnosed diabetics.
But a recent NPR report showcases what the average Internet surfer often fails to recognize: that many bloggers and website owners are paid off by drug companies who are pushing products--all of which are aimed at the vulnerable diabetic just looking for some answers.
Drug companies join the conversation
Drug companies like Sanofi US are churning out Twitter accounts, iPhone apps and Pinterest pages just to keep up with the consumer demand for information.
"Getting involved in social media is a critical component of serving the diabetes community," said Dennis Urbaniak, head of Sanofi US.
Diabetes blogger Kerri Sparling says she often receives free products and samples from drug or device manufacturer companies--one even pays her to speak at events and to run sponsored articles on her site.
And while Sparling says she has a disclosure section on her site, many people still worry about the impact of biased blogging, especially since bloggers can be easily tempted by bribes of money and free products.
"People do not read disclosures. The FDA and [Federal Trade Commission] need to create a whole new system for disclosing when a blogger or group gets paid by pharmaceutical companies," said Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy.
Chester says that drug companies are misleading the average consumer and that they need to be more candid about their relationships with online communities or individual bloggers.
Discerning fact from fiction
According to Jason Bronner, a doctor at the University of California San Diego Medical Center, patients are now more likely to go to the Internet for health information than to their doctors, which creates a problem given how much misinformation is out there.
Bronner is currently conducting a study that will aim to determine whether or not social media can help people manage diabetes. He also notes the importance of medical professionals being aware of where patients are getting information.
"As a doctor, basically what you want is to make sure the patient is relying on an accurate source of information, and if you don't know that they're on these websites, you're not going to know they have a chance of getting misinformation."
According to a spokesperson for the FDA, the agency is currently developing social media guidelines for drug companies. And Spalding says the diabetes community looks out for one another.
"If we see someone swooping in with their chocolate shake that cures Type 1 diabetes, there's going to be a voice raised saying, 'Wait, wait, wait, that's not true! Or, 'Don't come in and spam our community.' We protect ourselves in that way," she said.
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