Web MD is many people’s go-to website to try to figure out what may be causing a litany of symptoms. But, are there conflicts of interest at hand?
In her latest Vox “Dear Julia” column, science journalist Julia Belluz looked into the popular site, described as “a hypochondriac’s nightmare and Big Pharma’s dream.”
- “The only high-quality study I could find that related to the question of WebMD’s independence was published in JAMA in 2013. The researchers looked at which medical communication companies targeting doctors received the most money from 14 pharmaceutical and device companies. They found WebMD, along with its sister site Medscape, were the top recipients of industry dollars.”
- “I asked James Yeh, a physician-researcher based at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who has studied the influence of industry funding on medical information, what this reveals about the site. “This puts [WebMD] in a conflict of interest,” he said. “Maybe they are trying to educate the clinician or the public, but at the same time there’s the marketing side: They are also trying to sell a drug.”
- “In 2010, Sen. Chuck Grassley sent a letter to the site after finding that a WebMD quiz for depression, sponsored by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, was rigged to suggest everybody who took the test was at risk for major depression. Naturally, that would make them a potential candidate for antidepressants, conveniently manufactured by Eli Lilly.”
- “When I visited the page on weight loss pills, an advertisement on meal replacement shakes popped up, as did an ad for the drug Qsymia — which is among the six drugs featured in the article.”
- “The site’s content is produced by a team of doctors and medical writers. But the article failed to mention any basic information about the drug’s effectiveness or how many people the drug was likely to help (the number needed to treat, in medical parlance). And some of the information was worryingly incomplete. For example, WebMD didn’t note the serious side effects associated with the drug Contrave — it can cause severe, potentially fatal skin reactions and liver failure.
- “But those were just my observations after spending a few hours on the site. In the absence of better evidence, I decided to get the views of independent doctors. Overall, the doctors said they didn’t find anything exceptionally egregious about WebMD. But they noted the lack of context around some of the site’s medical advice, as well as a smattering of misinformation.”
- “All in all, would the world be better off without WebMD? It depends on which page you land on and what you’re looking for. The site may be an okay starting point for information, like Wikipedia. But the information isn’t always reliable, and unlike Wikipedia, the site is funded primarily by the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.”