ONLINE ETHICS: Bioethicist Warns Consumers to Remain Wary
Following concern over a series of "questionable practices," a coalition of health-related Web sites recently agreed to a set of ethical principles, but Bruce Hilton, director of the National Center for Bioethics, cautions in an op-ed piece that the coalition's heightened conscience may have more to do with threatened Federal Trade Commission regulations than "professional dedication." Called Health Internet Ethics, the new group includes a wide range of health sites with varying levels of credibility, Hilton notes. He argues that the group's creation was spurred by FTC discussions on possible regulatory measures. Those discussions were triggered by criticism lobbed at some eHealth sites for mixing medical ads with advice, allowing commercial use of private health information and hiding the sites' for-profit status. Because eHealth sites already became the top distributors of medical information to millions of online customers each week, the FTC was concerned that sufficient oversight was lacking. According to Hilton, the possible FTC action, along with President Clinton's promise not to "let breakthroughs in technology break down the walls of privacy," may have "lit a fire under the industry ethics group." Some consumers also stopped visiting all health Web sites because they no longer trusted some of the operators. While the Health Internet Ethics group hopes to create "an atmosphere of trust," Hilton concludes that "[g]iven the history of professional self- policing," patients should still remain ever-skeptical (Hilton, Scripps Howard News Service/Nando Times, 5/23).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.