In Attacking Bad Health Info, NYT Picked the Wrong Target

Posted by: in Healthcare Insights on February 7, 2011

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.

(I was in the process of posting this when I saw Maia Szalavitz’s take on the subject at Time.  John Sharp has also explored the issue.)

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.

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a director at WCG in the product group, where he specializes in media. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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  • http://www.cardiobrief.org Larry Husten

    Come on– don’t you think it’s highly probable that Heffernan was having a bit of fun and engaging in hyperbole when she advocated blocking the site?

  • http://www.wcgworld.com Brian Reid

    Larry — Thanks for the post and the comment. Yes, the Times piece was opinion. And yes, Heffernan never says WebMD is the worst of all possible sites. But she does think the content is so bad, so fear-mongering, so undeserving of attention that the article includes instructions for loading site-blocking software so that a user won’t even accidentally stumble across WebMD.

    My questions, when comes to health information, fundamental: is the content accurate? Is it helpful to the cause of health? As you note, these questions, particularly when they are interlaced with “commercial influences,” deserve thoughtful scrutiny. But I’m not sure that’s what Heffernan’s piece provided.

  • http://www.careflash.com Jay Drayer

    Interesting piece Brian.

  • Pingback: WebMD: the 800 Pound Gorilla in the Room « CardioBrief

  • http://www.cardiobrief.org Larry Husten

    I think you missed the point, Brian. First of all, this wasn’t a New York Times takedown. This was a clearly-labelled opinion piece by Virginia Heffernan. More importantly, I don’t think she claimed in any way that WebMD was the worst site out there. Of course there are all sorts of horrible little weasel websites out there that are much worse than WebMD. But Heffernan chose to focus on something much more insidious and dangerous: the subtle infusion of commercial influences into otherwise respectable medical content. In this respect, WebMD is indeed the 800 pound gorilla in the room, and it was a public service to expose it as such.

  • http://www.wcgworld.com Greg Matthews

    I don’t disagree with your point about who the real evildoers are out there … but my biggest takeaway was the fact that the entire health system tends to speak a language of fear … and I think that the real issue is trying to find a way to frame health conversations in constructive, motivational, health-and-lifestyle ways.
    That’s why I like Dr. Howard Luks’ take on how physicians feed this flame, and what they might do differently: http://www.howardluksmd.com/orthopedic-social-media/a-prescription-for-fear/