Bucket of bandwidth helps bad medicine go down

While the complementary medicine industry is crushed by the fallout of the Pan Pharmaceuticals debacle, the agency responsible for adding a new section to our daily newspapers, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, is enjoying a bout of online popularity.

Having issued Australia's largest ever product recall notice, TGA Web-central seems well tooled-up to process a crisis-driven spike in traffic – or at least their Web-hosting provider does. Some of the TGA site traffic figures appear almost as impressive as their print advertising budget.

Since the Pan product recall went out, www.tga.gov.au says traffic has jumped from 500 unique page impressions per day (UPI) to an average of 70,000, or an increase of around 14,000 per cent. Assuming most people hit the site between 7am and 11pm, that's 4375 an hour or about 73 UPIs a minute. The TGA pipe has held fast and true against what would normally constitute a buffer overflow.

Bandwidth issues aside, serious questions arise out of the way Pan recall information has been delivered online to the public. The first recall lists posted by the TGA Web site dated April 28 offered only Pan products as marketed by Pan, thus not those products made by Pan under licence and branded under a different name. Even so, this list is alive and well at http://www.tga.gov.au/recalls/panprodb.htm. It is, if nothing else, alphabetical in order - albeit with a suspicious bottleneck around 'P'.

Subsequent lists posted offer product identification by brand or label. Rather than having one, centralised list of 1400 black-listed brand names, there are now nine self-contained mini-lists. These are categorised numerically by "AUST R or AUST L No.", something that requires perusal of the TGA site's fine print to ascertain, then a co-location of such a number on the label of any suspect goods.

These then, sadistically, offer a search facility only related to a single numerical subset at a time – so you can search for "Vitamin C", but you have to do it manually across nine different lists - unless you have memorised the serialisation of your vitamins.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the TGA's site comes from the following: "More information on this recall is available on the TGA Web site at www.tga.gov.au or from the toll-free 24-hour consumer helpline on 1800 220 007. Please note that the TGA Web site also includes a list of products searchable in AUSTL/R order and searchable in alphabetical order. To assist consumers to identify those products definitely not implicated in these recalls, the TGA Web site also contains a list of sponsors NOT implicated in this recall".

So far, Computerworld is yet to find the so-called 'NOT' list, nor any unified alphabetically searchable list on the site. Callers to the TGA hotline tell of long delays on hold and sounds of rustling of paper rather than a tapping of keys from the other end of the line.

The TGA did not return Computerworld's calls. But the link to the TGA site, on the TGA site really does, quite definitely, work.

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Julian Bajkowski

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