Online health misinformation

QUICK READ: With patients afraid to go to their doctor for wellness visits and more people using the Internet for health information there is a huge opportunity for pharma to win over a skeptical audience.

Advertisers are boycotting Facebook over political ads but there is a greater danger; the misinformation of online health information. Online health seekers have been pretty much left on their own to determine which sites have credible information and which ones are selling snake oil.

COVID-19 has led to an explosion of online health searches at a time when 50% of patients are putting off visiting their doctor for wellness visits. An analysis of comments around the development of a COVID-19 vaccine also seems to indicate that most don’t feel a vaccine will be developed this year and that they want to ensure that ANY vaccine is thoroughly tested for safety and efficacy.

But what other healthcare information? Trusted websites like WebMD and the Mayo Clinic do get a good amount of traffic but there are also some quack websites.

According to STAT News “ was founded by Mike Adams, who claims to have cured his own type 2 diabetes with natural remedies. Through a network of more than 200 websites, with names such as and, Adams has long promoted the debunked claim that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism.”.

It’s important that understand that today’s online health seeker doesn’t just go to one website, they usually go to a number of sites depending on the condition they are researching. A click-stream analysis, for example, we just did for a client showed that there was significant movement between both credible and non-credible health sites for online seekers of depression.

What about the credibility of pharma websites? Past research has indicated that there is a “trust issue” when it comes to content on the medication being promoted and that pharma websites “lack easy to understand content that answers all of my questions”.

While patients still trust their physician doctors are concerned that patients may act on information that is not applicable to them. As one doctor told me during research “I just don’t have the time to review what a patient has printed out from the web”.

I have continually advised clients that the maze of online health information is a huge opportunity for pharma. There are leading, very credible, organizations that offer licensed content including Harvard Medical School and JohnHopkins yet pharma content is deemed too promotional and often hard to understand.

Every pharma product website should post a page with links to credible health sites and content should be thoroughly reviewed to ensure it meets patient needs. Your goal is simple: keep online health seekers on your site to build trust.

Website content should not be repurposed from other sources. It should be written by people who have an in-depth understanding of your target audience. When I launched, we leveraged thought leaders to write content and it was among the most read.

The other challenge is to know who you are talking to. Are you talking to patients or caregivers? At Medtronic Diabetes we found there was a need to address caregivers of type-1 diabetics. We developed checklists they could share with teachers, for example, so they knew what to look for in a child with diabetes.

Right now the Internet is going through a transformation. BOTS, foreign agents, and biassed news reporting have all led to people to question almost everything. Even online reviews are being questioned. Pharma needs to step-up its online content to earn the trust of online health seekers.