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Entries at Drugs.com have a section on "Side Effects... For Healthcare Professionals" which present percentages for incidence rates of side effects. However, I've found that the rates reported there are wildly at odds with those reported on manufacturer and FDA-approved drug sheets, or any other reference I can find. (Note that Drugs.com collaborates directly with the FDA, and in fact the FDA directs readers to Drugs.com for information on drugs.)

Here's a slice of one example. Researching Reclast, among the numerous side effects listed on Drugs.com, the following are included:

Gastrointestinal

Very common (10% or more): Nausea (29.1% to 46%), vomiting (14% to 32%), constipation (26.7% to 31%), diarrhea (17.4% to 24%), abdominal pain (14% to 16.3%), dyspepsia (10%)...

Musculoskeletal

Very common (10% or more): Bone pain (55%), myalgia (23%), arthralgia (21%), back pain (15%), and limb pain (14%)...

I'll compare to the prescribing information document, produced by the manufacturer Novartis and approved by the FDA, and available on both of their websites (e.g., at FDA). The following is an excerpt from Table 1.

Reclast Adverse Reactions Excerpt

Comparing a few of the side-effect rates noted (Drugs.com vs. Prescribing Information document):

  • Nausea: 29.1-46% vs. 4.5-8.5%.
  • Vomiting: 14-32% vs. 3.4-4.6%
  • Diarrhea: 17.4-24% vs. 5.2-6.0%
  • Bone pain: 55% vs. 3.2-5.8%
  • Myalgia: 21% vs. 4.9-11.7%

The Prescribing Information document has a few other tables reporting on other studies (for osteopenia, for men, and for Paget's disease), but the incidence rates are all quite similar to those in Table 1.

On Drugs.com, individual numbers are not given specific citations, although there is a general list of references at the bottom of the page. In the case of Reclast, there are five: (1) the Product Information document from Novartis, (2) UK summary, (3) Australian APPGuide online, (4) Australian product information, and (5) Kidney Int report (specific to tubular necrosis). Having looked at all of them, the UK and Australian reports give only qualitative descriptors for incidence rates (no percentage numbers), and the APPGuide Online doesn't appear to exist anymore.

In short: I can't find any source for the incidence rates shown on Drugs.com, and the numbers shown there are dramatically different from those in the prescribing information document from Novartis and the FDA. In some cases the rates are off by up to 50 percentage points.

Furthermore, this is true for all of the larger list of side effects shown for Reclast. And if I look at any other drug I see the same situation (e.g., currently investigating osteoporosis drugs: Fosamax, Boniva, Forteo, and Prolia).

So: Why are the side-effect incidence rates shown on Drugs.com so different from the FDA-approved prescribing information report? Where are Drugs.com getting these numbers? Which one should be considered more reliable?

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  • Not an answer, but a question for consideration: Is Drugs.com assuming a different dosage? I noticed the FDA table in your example specifies 5 mg but the drugs.com reference made no mention of dosage. Adverse reactions can certainly be affected by differing dosages.
    – Polyhat
    Dec 5, 2021 at 16:07
  • Dosage information is on a separate page at Drugs.com, e.g., here. In this case, all the use-cases at Drugs.com, and all six studies in the FDA-approved document, are at the 5 mg once-per-year level. I think that's the only dosage used for Reclast. Dec 7, 2021 at 17:57
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    @Daniel R. Collins Good questions. I reviewed the website trying to ascertain the overall data sources and the specific source of Reclast side effect estimates. As you note, specific citations that explain the website's very high estimates are absent. An editorial board member allegedly reviewed the Reclast topic in April 2021. IMHO, the very high estimates at Drugs.com should not be considered reliable given lack of specification of a source and the large discrepancy with the FDA approved prescribing information. I am checking some other drugs for which I have subject-matter expertise. Dec 21, 2021 at 22:36
  • @DianaPetitti: Thanks for that. I'll be very interested what your assessment is for some other drugs there. Dec 22, 2021 at 14:34
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    @Daniel R. Collins The task is proving to be daunting. Will take some time but I will persist. Dec 22, 2021 at 21:14

1 Answer 1

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The numbers are different because the package insert rates are based on two clinical trials while the information on Drugs.com is determined by Cerner Multum, a commercial drug database.

Adverse events frequencies reported in the drug prescribing information is typically determined by initial clinical trial data. The table included in your question indicates two studies as the source of these rates.

However, the very prescribing information you linked notes:

Because clinical trials are conducted under widely varying conditions, adverse reaction rates observed in the clinical trials of a drug cannot be directly compared to rates in the clinical trials of another drug and may not reflect the rates observed in practice.

Turning to Drugs.com, editorial policy page says:

The information available on the Drugs.com website is displayed under a number of licensing agreements with various publishers. For our drug-database information, we rely on the solid reputation of our suppliers: Cerner Multum, Micromedex and American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

Indeed at the bottom of the Drugs.com zoledronic acid (Reclast) page we find:

References relevant to chosen section (Show all references)

  1. Cerner Multum, Inc. "UK Summary of Product Characteristics."

If we review the informational page about Multum on Drugs.com

Multum's content is written by full-time associates who have no affiliations with drug companies, using a combination of sources. Initial References include the Product Information/Package Insert, primary literature and information from standards groups such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Physicians and pharmacists review the new information and make any necessary changes; all leaflets are reviewed by one or more practicing clinical specialists. Content is verified using secondary references that include standard authoritative medical textbooks and the Multum Expert Review Panel.

Cerner itself is the second largest vendor of electronic health record technology in the United States, and so it is also possible that adverse events may be supplemented by information gained by their customers.

Which source should be considered more reliable is difficult to say and probably opinion based.

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    Were you able to find specific documentation of the frequency of side effects of Reclast at Drugs.com that the OP describes? As you point out, the website references databases and texts and describes the review process. But I could not identify any publication/analysis that describes how the specific figures for Reclast were derived. As the OP points out, the UK and Australian websites referenced give ranges. (Undocumented private) databases, ((unspecified) texts, and a process are not adequate documentation of the frequencies, in my opinion. In my opinion. Jan 14 at 17:47
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    @Diana No, as far as I can tell, Drugs.com does not provide any evidence to back up their claims. However, this does not surprise me. The drug reference database my employer subscribes to, Lexicomp, has adverse event frequencies that are very similar to those seen on Drugs.com without any specific references. One final interesting thought is that Lexicomp has adverse events listed separately for "Oncology Indications" and "Non-oncology Indications" (lower rates). This suggests that at least part of the discrepancy in this case could be the indication for prescribing in the study population.
    – Ian Campbell
    Jan 14 at 22:32
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    Thx. Credible, generalizable frequencies for side effects (especially "causal" side effects) clearly challenging given many indications and data sources. Unfortunately, Drugs.com is consumer-facing. There is potential for "harm" from poor information. I did a side-by-side comparison of three different combined low-dose estrogen/progestin oral contraceptives, looking at "side effects" the website stated: "Check with your doctor immediately if any of the following side effects occur with <formulation>" It was sobering. Maybe created for pharmacist/physicians who can "filter." Jan 16 at 18:49
  • I'm checking this as the selected answer because it's seems as good as we're going to get at this time. However, it's at least uncomfortable that we wind up in a dead-end as far as confirming the source/study/situation for numbers seen at Drugs.com, inasmuch as they're locked in a private database. Given that the which-is-more-reliable-for-consumers question leads us to "difficult to say and probably opinion based", I'd say that question is still unanswered, and I'd be willing to select another answer if a better one shows up. Jan 24 at 2:07

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