WEB MEDICINE: Pick Your Sites Carefully, Columnist Warns
Health-oriented sites on the Internet can provide valuable information to patients, Time's Christine Gorman writes, but in many ways, the industry is still the "Wild West" of the Web, she warns. Noting that "[a]ny fool -- or charlatan -- with a telephone, modem and computer can create a decent-looking Web site," Gorman says that online health information is often tainted by "an epidemic of Internet snake oil, featuring discredited cancer 'cures,' ... $200 'second opinions' with more disclaimers than a sky-diving class and incompetent 'diagnoses' from self-styled 'professors' and 'academicians.'" Recently, in just a few hours time, staffers at the Federal Trade Commission found 1,200 Web sites touting "questionable" cures for serious conditions such as heart disease and AIDS, she reports. And although the government notified the sites they were violating truth-in-advertising laws, less than one-third removed the false claims. Gorman advises "e-patient[s]" to act with caution online and to look for some "important qualities" to distinguish good sites from fraudulent ones. Reputable health sites will be "upfront about who they are and what their mission or business plan is," and any advertising or online shopping areas should be clearly separated from editorial content. Also, "the original source of the information and the date it was posted or reviewed are marked," and experts are identified by name, credentials and institution. Perhaps most important, "confidentiality is treated as more than a technicality." Gorman recommends that ehealth consumers start their quests for information at sites sponsored by federal health agencies, university medical centers and well known health associations, such as the American Heart Association or the American Cancer Society. She adds that among "ambitious" consumer sites, such as WebMD or Medscape, the best "offer the personal touch missing from many doctor's offices" and the worst "just repackage snippets from television or wire reports." Gorman concludes by telling readers, "There is no doubt that you can find life-saving information on the Internet -- and that we're all going to manage our health on the Web someday. Whether you can truly depend on that information or are just playing an elaborate, perhaps risky game of cyberdoctor will depend a lot on the electronic company you keep" (4/3 issue).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.