WebMD: Purveyor of Bad Health Information And Snake Oil

Part of my motivation for writing this blog is to provide a source for reliable cardiovascular health information patients can access online.

It’s not easy to get reliable health information and even media organizations that might normally be perceived as trustworthy are often corrupted, inaccurate and potentially dangerous to patients.

WebMD is such an organization.

WebMD’s motto is  WebMD – Better information. Better health..

A stack of magazines produced by WebMD appeared on my office desk for some reason recently and I decided to look closely at what might be sitting in my patient waiting room amongst the 5 year old Architectural Digests and Car and Driver magazines.

I think it is particularly important to closely vet any health advice magazine that appears in the waiting room because our patient’s will assume we agree  with what is within the pages.

First off, recognize that this magazine, like most health magazines exists primarily to serve as an advertising vehicle: by my count 48 out of its 92 pages are ads of one sort or another.

Dominated by Direct-To-Consumer Advertisements

A lot of these ads are direct to consumer (DTC) ads for expensive and/or new medicatons that doctors apparently haven’t recognized the value of. There are new diabetic medications, new multiple sclerosis medications, new weight loss pills and new asthma inhaler medications guaranteed to cost more than the ones your doctor currently has you on.

For example, the weight loss drug, Belviq, helped increase the number of obese individuals  who were able to lose 5% of their body weight. However, before you take it you might want to read the page which lists  the  potentially serious adverse effects which include:

  • valvular heart disease
  • slowing your thinking
  • hallucinations
  • depression/suicide
  • slow heart beat

Also, be aware this is a federally controlled substance because it may lead to abuse or drug dependence.

There are even DTC ads for medications that treat diseases I have never heard of.  Take Nuvigil (armodafinil) which Teva is promoting for Shift Work Disorder. “Take Note:” the headline announces “excessive sleepiness due to shift work disorder may be burning out your wakefulness.”

We can debate the value of DTC advertising but at least the big Pharma DTC ads are promoting medications approved by the FDA.

This is not the case for the majority of products being advertised in the Web MD magazine. The vast majority of ads are for useless and ineffective snake oil products.

Snake Oil Ads

First out of the snake oil box: Sambucol black elderberry extract, promoted for “immune support.” A recent review of this stuff concluded that more studies were needed before concluding that it had any benefit on reducing flu duration.

Second up: Zyflamend, “Discover an herbal approach to pain relief after exercise:”Ten pure herbs, One potent formula. ” I’m not sure why they picked “pain relief after exercise” as their target here, the compound has not been shown to treat anything. New Chapter, the purveyor of this uselessness promotes a wide variety of snake oil supplements along with fish oil, the mainstream snake oil.

Next snake oil contender:ZZquil:Sleep Like You Got Upgraded. The non-habit forming sleep aid.ZZquil contains diphenhydramine (benadryl) a sedating antihistamine. There’s no reason to buy this forulation of benhydramine. If you feel the need to sedate yourself with a relatively benign drug, just buy generic diphenhydramine pills. Try 25 to 50 mg which cost less than 5 cents a pill.. Put the container back in the medicine cabinet when you’re done and you will have it available next time, unlike the ZZquil which you are bound to throw out after a while,.

Meaningless Celebrity Fluff Articles, Inaccurate Diet and Fitness Blurbs

The only significant original content in the magazine is  two celebrity fluff articles: one on the shoulder injury of NBA player Kevin Love, the other an interview with Olivia Munn (“We talk to the actor about her versatility and how she learned self-acceptance”)

In between the DTC ads and the snake oil ads are one-page blurbs full of misinformation on weight loss, fitness, and diet.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 6.32.29 AM For example, the fitness blurb takes recommendations from a celebrity fitness trainer which seems to emphasize doing Burpees or Burpee-like activities a potentially dangerous activity I have discussed  here.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 6.34.12 AMThe crowning achievement of this “magazine” has to be the heart health quiz which asks the question if men or women have a higher risk of heart attack and gives the wrong answer.

The scientifically accurate answer is that men  have a much higher risk of heart attack or risk at any given age than women.

 

 

After encountering this horribly inaccurate quiz I was entering intoIMG_6140 male asdvd
my ASCVD risk calculator app, the numbers
for a 69 year old female patient I was seeing. Her 10 year risk for heart attack and stroke was 7.9%. When I changed the gender parameter to male, the risk jumped to 15.2%.

Basically, for any set of risk parameters, if you enter male versus female, the 10 year risk of heart attack and stroke nearly doubles.

Thus, WebMD, the magazine,  is a useless and potentially harmful combination of:

  • DTC ads promoting expensive, marginally beneficial medications
  • Snake oil products with no benefit and potential risk
  • Celebrity fluff pieces with no useful medical information
  • Brief, often inaccurate blurbs on diet, exercise, weight loss.

This magazine, although free, should not be in doctor’s waiting rooms.

Given this production from WebMD I would also advise patients to avoid the WEbMD website as it cannot be considered  a trusted source of medical information and, like the print format, primarily exists as  an advertising vehicle.

Serenity Now,

-ACP

 

 

7 thoughts on “WebMD: Purveyor of Bad Health Information And Snake Oil”

  1. Excellent. Thank heaven a “real doctor” looked at WebMD. I was pretty confused about some of the “stuff” offered in this magazine.

  2. Next step will be snake oil mHealth devices (>2500 in my database) and apps (countless) combined with “in App” or online DTC snake oil ads based on false events from inacurate or fake measurements … t’s a bright future ! … with regulation & “health” market vigilance !

    1. Jeff, listing the worst 10 would be difficult. I think it would be meaningful if I had some way of assessing the overall impact of the website .for example, a site which few look at might contain horribly misleading information but it wouldn’t be very important in the big scheme of things.
      I assumed web M.D. had a major impact and was viewed as a reliable source of medical information based on the fact that they dumped a boatload of magazines in my waiting office.
      I would have to spend a fair amount of my time just determining which medical information sites had the most viewers and I don’t have that time.

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