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 MayoClinic.com is supported by advertising and in some cases has more ads per page than WebMD" (Sharp, eHealth, 2/6).