Commentary Compares WebMD, Mayo Clinic Online Health Websites

In a New York Times Magazine commentary, journalist Virginia Heffernan compares medical information websites, strongly preferring the not-for-profit Mayo Clinic's Symptom Checker site to WebMD, which she said started as an "ad-supported health alarmism site."

Heffernan writes that WebMD "preys on the fear and vulnerability of its users to sell them half-truths and, eventually, pills."

She cites a 2010 investigation by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) into the company's relationship with drug maker Eli Lilly. The site admittedly has connections to pharmaceutical companies, which have "permeated" the site with "pseudomedicine and subtle misinformation," Heffernan writes.

She writes that WebMD provides more dramatic headlines and suggests the use of prescription drugs as treatments for ailments more than Mayo Clinic's Symptom Checker does.

Heffernan writes that Mayo Clinic's site "is spare and neatly organized, with the measured, learned voice of the best doctors, ... though not ad-free."

She adds that "the Mayo Clinic has every motivation to keep its information authoritative and up to date," while WebMD has "every reason to amp up page views, impress advertisers and drive traffic to commercial sites" (Heffernan, New York Times Magazine, 2/6).

Observers Weigh In

In a posting on Time's "Healthland," Maia Szalavitz -- a neuroscience journalist and author -- writes that Heffernan's column does not offer much evidence "for its main thesis that WebMD is just a hawker for Big Pharma" (Szalavitz, "Healthland," Time, 2/7).

In a separate blog post, John Sharp -- an IT manager at the Cleveland Clinic -- writes that "there may be something to WebMD suggesting drug treatment more often" than Mayo Clinic. However, he adds that Heffernan's article "fails to mention that is supported by advertising and in some cases has more ads per page than WebMD" (Sharp, eHealth, 2/6).

Blake Dickeson
I think a more significant point is, "what distinguishes these web solutions?" Simply put, where is the emphasis upon patient centric care management? They seem to be the same offering of demand-only, patient-dependent technologies. I'm not sure why we are even debating the virtues of such old tech? Web-based learning technologies have come a long way. Take a look at and by New Millennia Health. They offer a full web-based knowledge management platform that is referral directed, feedback based, evidence based, ad free, provides self-management content based upon accepted standards of care (not simply pharmaceuticals), and drives automated reports of performance, compliance and risk to both provider and patient automatically. Very low cost, reimbursement covers most if not all of the cost.
Neil Calman
The Institute for Family Health has developed a link from its Epic patient portal - MyChart MyHealth - to the health information database of the National Library of Medicine - Medline Plus. No advetising - great health information in multiple languages and a staff willing to help link other EHRs into their data as well. Whats missing? Our patients didnt know such a resource exists. Now they do. Everyone should. Health information tainted by advertising is almost as bad as no information at all.

to share your thoughts on this article.