Are Docs on the Web Trustworthy?
Q. How do you know if someone dispensing medical advice on the Web is legit? Is there a lot of quackery on the Web?
As most people know, the upside to the Internet is the amount of health information you have literally at your fingertips. If you have a specific diagnosis, you can find out treatment options, locate online and real-time support, and seek out clinical trials. You can also become much more informed about disease prevention and ways to improve your overall health.
But then there's the downside to the Net: So-called cyberquacks travel the superhighway along with legitimate practitioners. Some simply want to make money off desperately ill people by leading them on with amazing stories of cures for diseases not known to be curable. Personal testimonials -- whether on the Net or in the real word -- do not by themselves constitute good scientific research. A lot of the time, you simply don't know whom you are talking to. It's quite easy for almost anyone to create a pseudonym and hide behind a screen name.
Other "quacks" spread misinformation believing it to be true. For instance, in 1996 the state of Massachusetts obtained a restraining order barring a woman from advertising an alleged cure for HIV on the Net. Although there is no medically recognized cure for HIV or AIDS, the ad claimed a nine-volt-battery-powered "SyncroZap" could cure HIV in seven minutes.
Part of the problem is that there currently is no government regulation of the Internet preventing false advertising or fraudulent claims, as there is on the national and state level. In magazines, health claims appear with the word "advertisement" at the top of the page, tipping off readers, but Internet messages for certain products and claims often just end with a message that says, "e-mail us for more information." Generally, be prepared for a sales pitch if you respond to that kind of message.
The major online services try to weed out fraudulent advertising, but it's quite impossible to safeguard the Internet's bulletin boards. Unfortunately, health forums and newsgroups can be veritable minefields of misstatements and half-truths.
In this program, we carefully check all the sites we link to -- always trying to find out who is the source. Sometimes, frankly, it's difficult to determine that. It should go without saying: Use common sense when health-surfing on the Net. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If it's going to cost you a lot, check it out off the Net.