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Harvard health expert calls Facebook 'Wild West'

New research out of Harvard and nearby Brigham and Women's Hospital finds 1 in 4 comments on Facebook diabetes sites promotes non-FDA approved products.

Spencer E Holtoway/Flickr

Harvard is finding fault with the brainchild of one of its own. Researchers from Mark Zuckerberg's alma mater, as well as from nearby Brigham and Women's Hospital, find that Facebook's largest communities dedicated to diabetes are littered with promotional comments touting non-FDA approved products.

The research, which is based on findings from the social network's 15 largest communities for diabetes, was published in October in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, which is itself on Facebook. (So are Harvard and Brigham and Women's Hospital.)

The findings aren't all bad. The team did identify "tentative support" for the health benefits of social media in managing chronic disease, mainly regarding the value of sharing personal insights and finding emotional support.

More concerning was the percentage of comments that were promotional in nature (27 percent). "Policymakers should consider how to assure transparency in promotional activities, and patients may seek social-networking sites developed and patrolled by health professionals to promote accurate and unbiased information exchange," the team concludes.

The 15 diabetes-related Facebook sites averaged 9,289 participants. The team evaluated 690 individual postings on wall pages and discussion boards written by 480 unique users.

They found that about 66 percent of the posts were written by individuals describing personal experiences managing diabetes, and 29 percent were written by diabetic patients providing some kind of emotional support to others. But 27 percent featured promotions and first-person testimonials for non-FDA approved products and services.

"There are certainly public health benefits that can be garnered from these sites, but patients and doctors need to know it is really the Wild West out there," says William Shrank, senior author of the study. "We saw little quality control around promotional and data gathering activities, and patients and policymakers should take note of that."

The study comes out of CVS Caremark's three-year collaboration with Harvard University and Brigham and Women's Hospital to research pharmacy claims data and other aspects of the patient experience to better understand patient behavior and medication adherence.