Helping Consumers Get the Facts on Prescription Drugs

Read the full story by Matthew Wiencke, published by the Geisel School of Medicine.

In Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, Alice asks Humpty Dumpty what the word “slithy” means, from a nonsensical poem “Jabberwocky.” He tells her, “’Slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ . . . You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz have started a new company with a mission of helping consumers be more informed about the benefits and harms of prescription drugs. (Photo courtesy of The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice)

When Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin, both professors of community and family medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine and of The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, were trying to come up with a catchy name for their new company, they were stumped. Woloshin thought of Lewis Carroll and got a perfect idea: make a portmanteau. He decided to name their for-profit company “Informulary,” combining both “inform” and “formulary.” Informulary’s mission is to provide people with information about the benefits and harms of prescription drugs through use of a formulary, or drug database.

When completed (they plan to finish in less than a year), the database will be an enormous online library of drug facts that will give patients, doctors, health care insurers, publishers, and pharmacy managers “transparent, clear information that supports good decision making,” says Woloshin. It will include a database of drug facts boxes, which Schwartz and Woloshin have already been creating over the past decade. A drug facts box is a tabular summary—much like a nutrition label on a box of cereal—of a drug’s benefits, harms and uncertainties based on clinical trial data. It gives the benefits of a drug versus placebo, the most prevalent side effects, how long the drug has been in use, who the drug is for, and precautions to follow when taking the drug.

Schwartz and Woloshin say the database will help address two main questions. “One is whether to use a particular drug and the other is how to best use that drug. And there’s lots of information when we mine through the FDA documents in terms of dosing. You may find out the higher dose was tested for a drug and in fact doesn’t work any better but just has more side effects,” says Schwartz.