There are responsible ways to present medical information and irresponsible ways. I will say at the outset that I have no ethical issues with discussing complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) with cancer patients, as long as the information presented is based in fact.
So it was no surprise to me and actually quite alarming to read a recent report suggesting that while only 1 in 20 breast cancer websites offer incorrect information, CAM-focused websites were 15 times more likely to contain inaccurate or incorrect information. The study to which I refer will appear in the 15 March issue of Cancer (and has just appeared online if you have access to the journal; abstract here.)
Investigators at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Hospital and the University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences at Houston (SHIS) identified 343 websites based on querying 5 search engines for 15 breast cancer-related keywords and 3 website characteristics. The sites were then evaluated for 15 quality criteria. The results (from the abstract) were:
The authors found 41 inaccurate statements on 18 webpages (5.2%). No quality criteria or website characteristic, singly or in combination, reliably identified inaccurate information. The total number of quality criteria met by a website accounted for a small fraction of the variability in the presence of inaccuracies (point biserial r = -0.128; df = 341; P = .018; r2 = 0.016). However, webpages containing information on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) were significantly more likely to contain inaccuracies compared with pages without CAM information (odds ratio [OR], 15.6; P < .001).
Holy cow! Fifteen times more likely to contain inaccuracies??? I can’t wait to see the original paper to discover the types of inaccuracies contained therein.
Buried in the M.D. Anderson press release, however, was a statement from the authors that the academic and medical credentials of the website author(s) bore no relation to the quality and accuracy of information provided. This issue speaks to a topic discussed quite often at Science-Based Medicine and my blog colleagues Orac and Dr RW (the latter of whom coined the term “quackademics” to denote unsubstantiated CAM practices conducted and promoted at otherwise highly respected academic medical centers.).
Far too many professionals with legitimate credentials are now promoting dubious practices under the guise of “complementary and alternative medicine.” I’m all for health freedom and, after all, I have spent 15 years of my life working on anticancer therapies from plants, marine creatures, and microorganisms. But I am sorely disappointed that my MD and PhD colleagues are putting their names behind inaccurate information on, of all places, websites for the breast cancer patient.
Kudos to Funda Meric-Bernstam, MD and her colleagues on bringing this issue to light.
Bernstam, E.V., Walji, M.F., Sagaram, S., Sagaram, D., Johnson, C.W., Meric-Bernstam, F. (2008). Commonly cited website quality criteria are not effective at identifying inaccurate online information about breast cancer. Cancer DOI: 10.1002/cncr.23308