Bad online health information is costing us all

  • The Internet allows the spread of false and misleading health information.
  •  Researchers at the CDC, for example, estimated that handling 107 cases of measles that occurred in 2011 cost state and local health departments between $2.7 million and $5.3 million.
  • A generation ago, patients were largely dependent upon the physicians they consulted as to how best to deal with a disease like cancer. Today they are becoming more reliant on mHealth, the Internet and digital health.

As the American Cancer Society cautions:

“The wrong information can hurt you when it comes to cancer. A lot of what passes for cancer information on the internet is made up of opinion, salesmanship, and testimonials, and is not grounded in careful science. Anyone can post any kind of information online, and some people may be passing along information that’s limited, inaccurate or just plain wrong. Some even try to deceive you.”

People shouldn’t expect a website to replace their physician, but they do

Time. It’s the new currency. It’s far easier to go online with Dr. Google than to talk the time and make an appointment and wait at the doctor’s office. While some online health information and social media are curated by medical professionals, others are by people who have no medical background. This can lead to deadly delays in seeking treatment.

study on cancer survival rates published in JAMA Oncology found that relying on fake treatment in addition to real treatments doubles the five-year death rate from cancer. This is because patients who have bought into fake treatments are much more likely to refuse real treatments.

Where is pharma?

Pharma companies have at their disposal a wealth of experts on a variety of health information but very few pharma companies actually ask thought leaders to write content which is a mistake.

In an analysis of click-stream data from various pharma websites we continually find that online health seekers usually go to a variety of health websites to get their questions answered. Some of this behavior is, of course, comparing treatments but our research also indicates that a lot is information gathering.

Earlier this year we did some research with a leading online health portal. We found online health seekers were both confused and troubled with the depth and scope of online health. Many complained that the information was hard to understand and that sites often did not answer their questions.

The overall costs of bad online health information could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The FDA and most drug companies have taken the approach of “buyer beware” and HCP’s are growing tired of poor health decisions made by bad online health information.

There is a HUGE opportunity here for both the FDA and drug companies but will they respond?