NYT piece pits editorial/advertising practices of WebMD vs. MayoClinic.com

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An online war of words is on after publication of a New York Times piece headlined, “Prescription for Fear” that begins:

“If you’re looking for the name of a new pill to “ask your doctor about,” as the ads say, the Mayo Clinic Health Information site is not the place for you. If you’re shopping for a newly branded disorder that might account for your general feeling of unease, Mayo is not for you either. But if you want workaday, can-do health information in a nonprofit environment, plug your symptoms into Mayo’s Symptom Checker. What you’ll get is: No hysteria. No drug peddling. Good medicine. Good ideas.

This is very, very rare on the medical Web, which is dominated by an enormous and powerful site whose name — oh, what the hay, it’s WebMD — has become a panicky byword among laysurfers for “hypochondria time suck.” In more whistle-blowing quarters, WebMD is synonymous with Big Pharma Shilling. A February 2010 investigation into WebMD’s relationship with drug maker Eli Lilly by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa confirmed the suspicions of longtime WebMD users. With the site’s (admitted) connections to pharmaceutical and other companies, WebMD has become permeated with pseudomedicine and subtle misinformation.”

Blogger Markus Dahlem dove into the discussion, including capturing how the senior vice president of WebMD responded in four Tweets yesterday. Here are two of those Tweets:

Opinion or not – would have expected a call & for @NYTimes to disclose its ownership of an ad-supported site that competes with WebMD.

…(the NYT story) asserts that Mayo operates under diff standards because they are owned by a not-for-profit clinic, but they are a for-profit site.

Blogger John Sharp points out:

“…(the NYT story) uses a Google search to find content on the sites rather than the sites own search engine and then claims that one has advertising and drives uses to prescription usage while the other does not.

I tested this with the term Fibromyalgia. It turns out that both sites display an add (sic) from Pfizer on the landing page, MayoClinic also has ads by Google but WebMD did not. WebMD on its chapter on treatment includes 3 brand name drugs but also recommends physical therapy and medical marijuana. MayoClinic recommends lifestyle and home remedies, alternative medicine and coping and support but nothing about drug therapy.

So there may be something to WebMD suggesting drug treatment more often that MayoClinic, but the article fails to mention that MayoClinic.com is supported by advertising and in some cases has more ads per page than WebMD.”

I think this is a very important discussion.

But I’m not going to insert myself further into this discussion because I was the founding editor-in-chief of the MayoClinic.com site in 2000 (can’t believe it was that long ago!). Many of the people I hired and supervised still work there.

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Joe Rojas-Burke

February 7, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Notably absent from the discussion is ConsumerReportsHealth.org, perhaps the only online, mass media source of consumer health news free of advertising conflicts. Most of the content is behind a paywall, however, and accessible only to members / subscribers. With the free content posted online, you mostly get what you pay for.
Disclaimer: I freelance for Consumer Reports health publications and Web sites.

Markus A. Dahlem

February 9, 2011 at 10:16 am

@Joe Rojas-Burke
MedlinePlus, the health information site from the National Library of Medicine is also a good source. Disclaimer: not needed ;-)
@Gary Schwitzer
I included links to MedlinePlus and a few more things (mostly images) in my post from Feb 7 (bye the way, thanks for mentioning it). You may want to revisit ;-)