I’ve written before on the importance of good, accurate information on the Internet, especially in an age where so many patients are using the web as their first stop for medical data. Dealing with bad or dangerous information is important enough that I pulled together a South by Southwest panel proposal for the incomparable Gary Schwitzer, who is currently leveraging the power of the ‘net to lead the charge against silly/bad/harmful journalism at healthnewsreviews.org.
But in the comments to the proposal, Dennis Grace, while praising Gary, raises a worthwhile objection to one of the more provocative statements in the proposal: that bad information “could very well kill you.”:
Seemingly so, but I’ve not been able to dredge up a single case of death by Internet medical research. Iatrogenic deaths occur in the thousands. Still, Dr. Schwitzer’s writings are more concerned with combatting fear-mongering journalists and self-serving researchers than with Grandma dying from cyanide poisoning after ingesting too many apricot pits in an effort to combat her cancer.
It’s hard to argue that, in terms of immediate danger, it’s not fair to put lousy reporting on the same scale as those who peddle laetrile. But in terms of influence and impact online, it’s misleading mainstream information that can have the most pernicious effect. For example, the over-screening of America (a common topic for healthnewsreview.org) may not immediately increase the number of deaths, but it certainly boosts health spending, health care resources and anxiety. And it’s gut-wrenching to think of the missed opportunities in autism research, where so much time, money and energy has been invested in knocking down the purported vaccine-autism link instead of examining more promising areas of research.
Of course, all of this is exactly why I’m such a big fan of healthnewsreview.org, and part of the reason that I’m interested in seeing Gary at SXSW (and the hope would be to get a couple of other high-profile medical debunkers to sit on the panel with him, if the proposal is selected). Online health information can improve only if there is good information to crowd out the bad, if content creators work to provide perspective and context, and if the public is trained to identify and ignore woo and hype.
Is this a pitch for the SXSW proposal? You bet. If you’d like to hear this discussed in more depth, do me a favor and click over to the Panel Picker for “‘Bad Mushrooms’: Rooting Out Dangerous Health Stories” and give it a thumbs-up.