There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere and twittersphere about Virginia Heffernan’s column in the New York Times magazine on Sunday comparing WebMD very unfavorably to MayoClinic.Com. Heffernan makes a fairly simple point: because of WebMD’s “(admitted) connections to pharmaceutical and other companies,” the site is “permeated with pseudomedicine and subtle misinformation.”
Because of the way WebMD frames health information commercially, using the meretricious voice of a pharmaceutical rep, I now recommend that anyone except advertising executives whose job entails monitoring product placement actually blockWebMD. It’s not only a waste of time, but it’s also a disorder in and of itself — one that preys on the fear and vulnerability of its users to sell them half-truths and, eventually, pills.
Here’s what you get, by contrast, at the Mayo site, according to Heffernan:
No hysteria. No drug peddling. Good medicine. Good ideas.
Starting with a series of tweets from WebMD’s PR Czar, Adam Grossberg, Heffernan’s piece has received quite a bit of pushback. (Click here, here, and here to read more reactions to the piece.) Critics have noted that although the Mayo Clinic is indeed a nonprofit organization, the Mayo Clinic website runs many of the same ads as WebMD, while others have pointed out that the Mayo site is itself hardly a paragon of reliable information.
PR executive Brian Reid summarizes these feelings, writing that WebMD is very far from being the worst medical website out there. Reid of course is right. Although he doesn’t exactly defend WebMD or engage the problems raised by Heffernan, he notes that
there is an alternative universe of health sites out there that are dispensing potentially harmful information to scared readers, from those railing against vaccines to those promoting homeopathy to a thousand other bad ideas.
But I think Reid and the others miss the larger and much more important point. Reid attacks a straw man. Heffernan didn’t claim that WebMD was the worst site out there. Of course there are all thousands of horrible little weasel websites out there that are much worse than WebMD. But Heffernan chose to focus on something even more insidious and dangerous: the subtle infusion of commercial influences into otherwise respectable medical content in the largest and most successful medical website in the world. In this respect, WebMD is indeed the 800 pound gorilla in the room, and as such is a proper subject for criticism and scrutiny.
Full Disclosure: I was the editor of a website, TheHeart.Org, that was acquired by WebMD in 2005. Since December 2008 I have had no association with the company.