The New York Times Magazine on Sunday included a rather befuddling column by departing writer Virginia Heffernan. It recommended that people seeking medical information online block WebMD’s results from their searches, because “with the site’s (admitted) connections to pharmaceutical and other companies, WebMD has become permeated with pseudomedicine and subtle misinformation.”
Noting that WebMD has become “synonymous with Big Pharma Shilling” in certain circles, Heffernan promoted the use of the Mayo Clinic’s Symptom Checker instead, where you get: “No hysteria. No drug peddling. Good medicine. Good ideas.”
For instance, the column compares search results for “headache” from both MayoClinic.com and WebMD.com. A Google search for “headache” and “WebMD” takes you to WebMD’s photo- and advertisement-heavy Migraine and Headaches Health Center, where a video headline asks, scarily, “Headaches: When Is It an Emergency?” and which spotlights medications as headache treatment. By contrast, the same Google search for “headache” and “Mayo Clinic” takes you to a more subdued Mayo page on tension headache, which discusses headaches more generally and suggests ways to prevent them with nondrug alternatives.
But is the WebMD approach really a problem? Who searches online for “headache” unless they suspect their condition is more serious than usual? And while WebMD mentions drug treatments, it doesn’t promote any particular brand of drugs over another. The Mayo Clinic’s headache pages are more complete, containing information on treating pain with both lifestyle changes and drugs, but it too discusses a vast variety of drugs for treatment and advertises its own DVDs for lifestyle improvement.
The NYT Magazine story says that WebMD frames its health information commercially, its pages designed largely to increase user traffic and ad sales. That’s clearly true from a glance at the site. But is there a for-profit media organization that isn’t trying to do that?
And aside from noting that WebMD was investigated in 2010 by Senator Chuck Grassley for its cozy relationship with pharmaceutical companies, the column provides little other real evidence for its main thesis that WebMD is just a hawker for Big Pharma. Nor does it include the specifics of Grassley’s investigation of WebMD, which focused on the site’s ties to drug maker Eli Lilly.
While WebMD.com does disclose on its site that Lilly is a “partner,” as Heffernan suggests, the fruits of that relationship can misguide the unsophisticated reader. For instance, from WebMD’s general depression information page, an editorial link to a “Depression Quiz” takes you to a depression screening page, funded by Lilly, which makes the antidepressant Cymbalta. Worse, a banner ad from the same depression home page takes you directly to a Cymbalta-sponsored page titled Learning to Treat Depression, whose layout and design are hard to distinguish from non-sponsored content. The top of the page does note that it is a “sponsored resource” and that the sponsor of the content has “sole editorial control.” But naïve Web users could potentially be misled.
Of course, the same could be said for some of the advertorial pages that have appeared in the New York Times Magazine and other major media. And, as WebMD’s senior vice president of corporate communications pointed out on Twitter, the Times Magazine also has a competing ad-supported medical site — which was not disclosed in Heffernan’s story.
To top it all off, the bottom of the story linked to eHow.com as a site for information to block WebMD permanently from appearing in your searches. That’s right — Demand Media’s content farm eHow, which has been described as “digital media’s Dickensian sweatshop” because of its poor pay for writers and low quality content. (Check out the lack of barriers between ad and editorial and the weird recommendations for “natural” headache treatment on eHow.)
To be fair, Heffernan did not suggest getting health information from eHow — only information about how to block WebMD permanently from your browser. But linking to a content farm, which Google recently implied it would downgrade in its searches, does not inspire confidence.
Finding reliable health information online can be a challenge — it’s always important to maintain skepticism and to look very carefully at whether or not content is sponsored by industry, no matter which website you use. Both WebMD and the Mayo Clinic’s site are ad-supported, including pharma ads; without a much more in-depth investigation, I wouldn’t recommend one over the other for every search. Instead, it’s generally best to rely on multiple sources — not block them.