The current deluge of online medical information can be harmful in at least 3 different ways:
- Misinformation. Medical misinformation, whether online or in the press, can have devastating consequences. An obvious example of this is the measles mumps rubella (MMR) vaccination controversy that followed the publication by Andrew Wakefield et al pointing to a causative link between such vaccines and the development of autism. Deemed unsubstantiated on retrospective analysis and completely debunked in the medical scientific community, the paper was disseminated by the mainstream press, resulting in significantly lower immunization rates – unaffected by the eventual retraction of the paper. More than 10 years later, we are still living with the devastating consequences.
- Sorting through the enormous amount of information found on virtually any topic can become a daunting task for anyone, and especially for those who may be ill prepared to digest it and place in the proper context. It often leads to confusion, seeking many different opinions, and poor decision-making – or the inability to make a decision.
- Finally, efforts at profiteering from a vulnerable patient population by unscrupulous groups and entities have become all too common everywhere. It is a painful reality today that many desperate individuals are being targeted via the internet with marketing for potentially inappropriate treatments that can produce disastrous medical consequences – and empty bank accounts!
The above said, online medical information can be an invaluable resource for both the community at large and the medical community. But “the free availability of information, a key strength of the web, requires regulation to safely harness these advantages” as stated by Adam Hartley (Harefield Hospital, Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK) in a recent review. “It is with this in mind that The Information Standard has been established by the National Health Service (NHS) in England. This provides a hallmark on medical websites, signifying that the contained material is of sufficiently high quality, satisfactorily trustworthy and is up-to-date, so as to be recommended to patients.”
Such efforts should be applauded, and hopefully duplicated elsewhere in the near future as they may provide an answer to the daunting questions and issues described in the beginning of this blog post. I feel there is an unmet urgent need in this area. We as physicians must be prepared to provide our patients with reliable trustworthy Internet resources.