Yesterday, the New York Times Magazine published what can only be described as a takedown of WebMD, accusing the granddaddy of health information sites of, among other things, disease-mongering, poor design and corporate influence. The proposed solution, per the Times, was to encourage readers to program their browsers to block WebMD (the Mayo Clinic was suggested as an alternative).
The over-arching theme of the Times’ story is important. It is vital that consumers be able to trust the medical information they find the web. But if the goal is to target sites that “prey on the fear and vulnerability of its users,” as the piece yesterday put it, WebMD hardly seems like the right starting point.
There is a whole universe of sites that provides good information, vetted by established specialists and which bear the mark of one of a number of online standard-setting groups (most notable HONCode). These sites are all different. Some look like the Mayo Clinic. Some look like WebMD. Some look like About.com’s health sites (which the New York Times owns) or the Times’ own health portal.
These sites are not the ones preying on their users.
But there is an alternative universe of health sites out there that are dispensing potentially harmful information to scared readers, from those railing against vaccines to those promoting homeopathy to a thousand other bad ideas. These are sites that don’t have — as WebMD does — a staff of journalists soberly reporting on the study of the day. These “health” sites don’t have content vetted by physicians. Instead, these sites spread pseudoscience and woo, robbing patients of the tools to understand the state of the medical science.
I think it’s great that the Times is interested in improving health information, a topic that is dear to my heart, but they’ve picked the wrong target. If we’re going to go after bad medicine, let’s go after bad medicine.