Pfizer Launches Site Weighing Drug Risks, Benefits

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Amid the deluge of drug advertising and news about safety issues, plenty of patients are bewildered over how to weigh the risks and benefits of a medication, or even how to find out what they are.

The world's biggest drug company is taking a crack at making that easier with a new Web site on medication safety - unusual in an industry often criticized as using marketing practices that oversell drug benefits and downplay risks.

Pfizer Inc., which gave The Associated Press an exclusive preview of the site, was to launch it Monday morning.

The New York-based maker of Viagra and cholesterol fighter Lipitor plans to promote the site by working with medical and patient advocacy groups, as well as with online advertising on Web sites targeting medical professionals and patients.

The detailed site includes sections written for patients and for health professionals, with plain-English explanations, engaging graphics and clips of video hosts discussing important points. It has a prominent link to information about how to report a drug side effect to Medwatch, the Food and Drug Administration reporting program.

In-depth sections include a timeline that covers steps taken to monitor a drug's safety from initial testing until well after it's on the market, and how the pharmaceutical industry, regulatory agencies and health professionals work together and with patients to try to ensure safety. Another section gives some insight on weighing risks, showing how people tend to fear unlikely things, like being in an airplane crash, more than common risks such as heart disease.

And a key fourth section details what patients should know, tell their doctor and ask about every time they are prescribed a medicine; how to decide whether its risks are acceptable, and how to interpret what's on a prescription bottle.

Two doctors who are frequent industry critics called the site a good first step in communicating to the public the need to balance the risks and benefits of medicines.

"They've made a good-faith effort," said Dr. Steve Nissen, Cleveland Clinic's head of cardiology.

"Too long, the perspective presented to the public has been that drugs are some magic bullet, that they do something good for you but that there's no downside," Nissen said, adding he is pleased the site does not promote Pfizer products.

Dr. Harlan Krumholz, director of the Yale-New Haven Hospital Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation, said Pfizer is "trying to do the right thing" to help people put drug safety in perspective.

"The spirit of what they're doing is great," he said. "Whether this is the most effective way to assist patients to make the best decisions for themselves, time will tell."

Both said they hope other drug companies will follow suit and that Pfizer's move will bring more public discussion about drug safety.

Mike Zarski, chief information officer of the American Osteopathic Association, evaluated the site as a potential resource its member physicians could show patients. He concluded it would be good.

"It's the kind of information I would want to provide my family," Zarski said, but he noted Pfizer did not follow his suggestion of keeping the site totally separate from the corporate Web site.

Gretchen Dieck, Pfizer's head of safety and risk management, said the company decided to create the site after focus groups of doctors, patients, regulators and others showed an interest in having such information.

The effort follows recent steps by Pfizer to address concerns about industry behavior, including changing its funding for doctors' continuing medical education programs to eliminate commercial aspects and supporting an industry trade group's updated policy limiting gifts from sales representatives to doctors.