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Book Review: “Tabloid Medicine: How The Internet Is Being Used To Hijack Medical Science For Fear And Profit”

This was the Guest Blog at Scientific American on February 23rd, 2011. 

In his new book, “Tabloid Medicine: How The Internet Is Being Used to Hijack Medical Science for Fear and Profit,” Robert Goldberg, PhD, explains why the Internet is a double-edged sword when it comes to health information. On the one hand, the Web can empower people with quality medical information that can help them make informed decisions. On the other hand, the Web is an unfiltered breeding ground for urban legends, fear-mongering and snake oil salesmen.

Goldberg uses case studies to expose the sinister side of health misinformation. Perhaps the most compelling example of a medical “manufactroversy” (defined as a manufactured controversy that is motivated by profit or extreme ideology to intentionally create public confusion about an issue that is not in dispute) is the anti-vaccine movement. Thanks to the efforts of corrupt scientists, personal injury lawyers, self-proclaimed medical experts, and Hollywood starlets, a false link between vaccines and autism has been promoted on a global scale via the Internet. The resulting panic, legal feeding frenzy, money-making alternative medicine sales, and reduction in childhood vaccination rates (causing countless preventable deaths), are sickening and tragic.

As Goldberg continues to explore the hyperbole behind specific “health threats,” a fascinating pattern emerges. Behind the most powerful manufactroversies, lies a predictable formula: First, a new problem is generated by redefining terminology. For example, an autism “epidemic” suddenly exists when a wide range of childhood mental health diagnoses are all reclassified as part of an autism spectrum. The reclassification creates the appearance of a surge in autism cases, and that sets the stage for cause-seeking.

Second, “instant experts” immediately proclaim that they have special insight into the cause. They enjoy the authority and attention that their unique “expertise” brings them and begin to position themselves as a “little guy” crusader against injustice. They also are likely to spin conspiracy theories about government cover-ups or pharmaceutical malfeasance to make their case more appealing to the media. In many cases the experts have a financial incentive in promoting their point of view (they sell treatments or promote their books, for example).

Third, because mainstream media craves David and Goliath stories and always wants to be the first to break news, they often report the information without thorough fact-checking. This results in the phenomenon of “Tabloid Medicine.” Read more »

How Doctors Feel About Patients Who Google Their Symptoms

Many doctors roll their eyes whenever patients bring in a stack of research they printed out, stemming from a Google search of their symptoms. A piece by Dr. Zachary Meisel on TIME.com describes a familiar scenario:

The medical intern started her presentation with an eye roll. “The patient in Room 3 had some blood in the toilet bowl this morning and is here with a pile of Internet printouts listing all the crazy things she thinks she might have.”

The intern continued, “I think she has a hemorrhoid.”

“Another case of cyberchondria,” added the nurse behind me.

It’s time to stop debating whether patients should research their own symptoms. It’s happening already, and the medical profession would be better served to handle this new reality.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 61 percent of patients turn to the web to research health information. That number is from 2009, so presumably it’s higher today. Health information online is akin to the Wild, Wild West. Stories from questionable sites come up on Google as high — or higher — than information from reputable institutions. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*

HealthMash: A Next-Generation Health Information Search Engine

HealthMash, WebLib’s next-generation semantic health search engine, will release an iPhone application in January. It utilizes proprietary natural language processing and semantic technology tools and resources in order to find highly relevant, reliable, and recent health information from the most trusted sources and facilitate user exploration and discovery.

*This blog post was originally published at ScienceRoll*

Health 2.0: Is It A Threat To The Medical Profession?

The Internet has threatened journalism. Clay Shirky has said that everyone is a media outlet. An Internet connection and blogging platform makes everyone a publisher. Can the mass professionalization of journalism be applied to medicine or health? Can access to a broadband connection outfit a citizen to think and act like a physician?

There are pieces of what physicians do that can be replicated, and other pieces that can’t. The technical things that doctors do can’t be replaced. Removing an appendix or replacing a heart valve, for example. Tough to pull off on CureTogether.

But what about the thinking? After all, patients have access to the same information, references, and literature as physicians. Unfettered access to information can create an illusion. It can give us a false sense of control. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

New Survey: 1 In 10 Cell Phone Users Have Health Or Medical Apps

A new survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows how the proliferation of smart mobile devices is causing a shift in the way users are accessing data and information on health.

Some of the most interesting findings are related to the substantial number of users who actually have applications that help them manage and track their health. Some key findings from the survey:

*17 percent of cell owners have used their phone to look up health or medical information on the Internet; 29 percent of cell owners ages 18 to 29 have done such searches.

*9 percent of cell phone owners have apps they use to help track and manage health.

*The heaviest use of health or medical related apps was by young adults: About 15 percent of those ages 18 to 29 have such apps, compared to 8 percent of cell users ages 30 to 49. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at iMedicalApps*

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