Health consumer 'Googlers': Know thy source, cautions I-LAW

By Ann Knef | Jan 30, 2008


When health consumers search the Internet, they may be getting medical advice from personal injury lawyers – not doctors, according to a new report.

Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW), a legal watchdog group, said the recent report from New York-based Center for Medicine in the Public Interest (CMPI) makes some "frightening" revelations.

The group surveyed the top Google search hits for two popular prescription drugs: Crestor, a drug used for cholesterol and atherosclerosis, and Avandia, a type-2 diabetes drug.

"What we found: Nearly half of the sites on the first three pages of search results belonged to lawyers or law firms, often fishing for plaintiffs for class-action lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies," states the CMPI report released this month. "Other sites sold untested herbal 'alternatives' or were run by individuals and organizations ideologically opposed to pharmaceuticals."

Akin said the report, "Insta-Americans: The Empowered (and Imperiled) Health Care Consumer in the Age of Internet Medicine," shows a disturbing trend in the dissemination of health information.

"What is happening is personal injury lawyers are playing doctor," he said. "They are trolling the Internet for potential business and in many cases they are not even being up front about their sponsorship of these sites."

The report also states that more than 113 million Americans use the Internet to search for health information and about 75 percent of these individuals do not check the source of the information they find.

It studied the content of the first three pages (searchers stop by the third page, CMPI suggests) of results for Internet searches of four different medications.

"CMPI found that the information prominently displayed in search engine results was not only misleading and confusing, but dangerous for patients," the report states. "With few exceptions, the information online was presented in a way that the sites appeared legitimate but had no medical authority whatsoever.

"Patients who use Google to find important information about such drugs will be overwhelmed with negative information and will find little, if any, solid medical information to help them weigh the risks versus the benefits of using these medications."

Akin advised consumers not to ask a lawyer for medical advice.

"Certainly, lawyers have every right to host these websites, but at the very least, they should be open and honest about who they are," Akin said.

"People's lives are at stake. Personal injury and drug companies alike should clearly and conspicuously identify themselves on the health-related websites they sponsor allowing consumers to make informed choices about their health."

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