Internet Health Information Scams
By Dr. Zoltan P. Rona
Dr. Rona is the author of several Canadian best selling books and
practices complementary/integrative medicine in Toronto. To read
more of his articles, see http://www.mydoctor.ca/drzoltanrona
A few years ago one of my patients brought me an article from the
Internet that claimed I advise my patients to drink their own urine and
that I got my Masters Degree from the Moonies. Of course, this is
nonsense (I warn people not to drink their urine and I got my Masters
from the University of Bridgeport who provided the training at the Toronto
General Hospital). This sort of experience illustrates some important
points to consider about health information you find on the Internet.
More often than not, web sites are recruiting vehicles for some multi-level
marketing company, the sale of drugs and food supplements or
promoting a quasi-religious or political philosophy. The health information
they provide may be heavily biased. Due to practitioner turf wars and
philosophical differences between various health disciplines (e.g.
mainstream medicine vs. homeopathy), there is bound to be huge
differences of opinion on the same health issue.
For example, there are “quackwatch” web sites that dismiss or denigrate
just about every type of health advice that does not include drugs or
surgery. I wouldn’t mind these people all that much if they attempted to
be balanced in their reporting. Most of these obsessively hypercritical
web sites claim that all chiropractors, naturopaths, homeopaths,
acupuncturists, health book and magazine authors are quacks. Yes,
even you may be on their quack list. Check these sites out:
Dr. Terry Polevoy, an acne specialist and self-proclaimed Canadian 1)
quackwatcher, uses his web site to take pot shots at just about
every type of medical alternative. Hundreds of complementary or
integrative medical people, including myself, have been
“polevoyed.” No rest for this lively whiner. See
http://www.healthwatcher.net/Quackerywatch/index.html but also
Dr. Stephen Barrett, the American equivalent of pimple popping 2)
Polevoy, has a far more extensive quackwatcher site
(http://www.quackwatch.org/) but, also see
http://www.healthfreedomlaw.com Needless to say, both Barrett
and Polevoy are involved in numerous lawsuits.
For some reason, these folks seem to begrudgingly approve of Dr.
Andrew Weil, the American health guru who basically shares the same
health philosophy as many of the health professionals the quackbusters
vilify. Polevoy claims Weil has gone “mainstream”. Could this have
anything to do with Weil’s appearance on the front page of TIME
magazine or his numerous appearances on CNN, both media heavily
sponsored by drug companies?
The quackwatchers cleverly omit the fact that thousands of people are
killed off each year by drugs like Vioxx prescribed by mainstream
medical doctors (see http://www.adrugrecall.com/). They also have no
comment on the fact that conventional medical doctors and their FDA
approved prescription drugs are the third leading cause of death in North
America (see JAMA July 26, 2000; 284(4): 483-5). Sure, we have a few bad
apples in the alternative medical world, but let’s not dismiss all of them
because of their health philosophy.
Evaluating the reliability and credibility of Internet health information is
challenging at best. There are, however, a few general guidelines that
usually help you separate health fact from commercial/political fiction.
Always remember that anybody can publish and promote whatever they
want on the Internet. There is no health information censorship (at least
not yet). The authority and reputation of the source is the most important
The following are some general guidelines for what to think about when
searching for health information on the Internet. They also apply to popular
health books and magazines. If any of you reading this have any other
suggestions to add to these, please feel free to contact me by email
Usually Reliable/Credible Health Information Characteristics
Author easily identified by relevant professional qualifications, a trusted
health organization, University or professional body
The health information is referenced by scientific publications, clinical
evidence or is peer reviewed
The information is current, relevant and consistently updated by a
Educational and non-profit web sites are usually more reliable than
Usually Unreliable/Dubious Health Information Characteristics
Author not easily identified by qualifications but connected to a web site
used to sell a product or promote a particular political, commercial or
personal point of view (e.g. various quackwatcher sites)
The health information is rambling, narrative, unreferenced and
anecdotal for the most part (e.g. most multi-level marketing supplement
The information is dated, irrelevant and the Webmaster cannot be
contacted to verify or update facts
Commercial web sites with shopping carts, demands for credit card
information and personal information
My Web Site Recommendations
The following web sites meet the criteria for usually reliable and credible
information and have minimal commercial content. These are all good
places to start your health information quest:
1) McMaster’s Alternative Medicine site
(http://hsl.mcmaster.ca/tomflem/altmed.html) attempts to be the richest
and most comprehensive resource for complementary/integrative
medical information. McMaster University was one of the first in North
America to offer complementary medicine training for its medical
students and is usually on the cutting edge of health information.
2) The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
(http://nccam.nih.gov/) is a U.S. government sponsored site with a rather
conservative approach to health care topics and issues. For the more
scientifically inclined, this may be the best choice but the information is
not as user friendly.
3) HealthWorld Online (http://www.healthy.net) is a multi-authored site
with dozens of articles by well-respected author, Dr. Elson Haas.
Although many of the articles were originally published in the 1990s, the
information is still accurate and regularly updated. Articles are not tied
into product sales in most cases.
4) Dr. Joseph Mercola’s site (http://www.mercola.com/) is chock full of
interesting and very current health information. Mercola regularly reviews
published medical journal articles and keeps a wide eye open for health
care system abuses. His free weekly newsletter is a great way to keep
up with all the latest. The sales pitches and political rhetoric on the site
are only mildly annoying.