Online Information: Dangerous To Your Health?
As millions of Americans resolve to be healthier in 2008 and turn to the internet for advice, a new report from the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, "Insta Americans: The Empowered (and Imperiled) Healthcare Consumer in the Age of Internet Medicine" finds that Google searches for health information may be leading to dangerous medical decisions.
"What we found was not only disturbing, but dangerous to public health," said Robert Goldberg, Vice President, Center for Medicine in the Public Interest. "For millions of Americans, Google has replaced the family physician. People trust, and make decisions, based on the information they find online," said Goldberg, "With few exceptions, the information we found appeared legitimate but had no medical authority whatsoever. In many cases, we found lawyers posing as medical experts."
The analysis of search results revealed that online real estate was dominated by Web sites paid for and sponsored by either class action law firms or legal marketing sites searching for plaintiff referrals. Other sites were sponsored by groups or individuals selling "alternatives."
-- Sixty-five percent of the first three pages of search results came from sites which were biased or contained unverified information.
-- Nearly half of the first three pages of search results belonged to lawyers and attorney referral services seeking plaintiffs for class action law suits.
-- No official regulatory pages or professional medical organizations appeared in the inventory of results.
"Patients who use Google to find important health information will be overwhelmed with negative information and will find little, if any, solid medical information to help them weigh the risks versus the benefits of using these medications," said Peter Pitts, CMPI President and former Associate Commissioner for External Affairs for the FDA.
"Much like our email boxes are filled by 'spam' urging us to collect millions from Nigeria or confirm our banking information from phony Ebay or Bank of America security sites, a lot of the medical 'information' on the Web is designed to sell, deceive or frighten, rather than inform," said Goldberg.
According to CMPI, the two most important questions online medical information seekers should ask themselves are: 1.) How do I know this information is accurate? 2.) Where did this information come from?
To determine what patients typically see when searching for information on prescription medications, CMPI took a snapshot of the first three pages of Google search results for a commonly-used cholesterol treatment and a type-2 diabetes drug. CMPI also looked at the real world consequences of what happens when decisions are based on incomplete, false or misleading information. Using SSRIs and vaccines as examples, CMPI found that basing decisions solely on online hysteria and fear could lead to a public health crisis or even death.