Why you should not take WebMD seriously

Somehow or other, I have got on the mailing list for WebMD, the medical information site that is often the first one that is returned by search engines when you look for information on anything health related. I get emails from them regularly and on the surface, it has all the signs of being a reliable objective source of authoritative health-related information.

But that look can be deceiving. Virginia Heffernan wrote back in 2011 that the site is actually a shill for Big Pharma and mixes in all kinds of promotions along with actual useful information

She recommends that if you have some symptoms that you are concerned about, it is better to go to the site run by the Mayo Clinic that dispenses much more reliable information, that has “No hysteria. No drug peddling. Good medicine. Good ideas.”

In more whistle-blowing quarters, WebMD is synonymous with Big Pharma Shilling. A February 2010 investigation into WebMD’s relationship with drug maker Eli Lilly by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa confirmed the suspicions of longtime WebMD users. With the site’s (admitted) connections to pharmaceutical and other companies, WebMD has become permeated with pseudomedicine and subtle misinformation.

Because of the way WebMD frames health information commercially, using the meretricious voice of a pharmaceutical rep, I now recommend that anyone except advertising executives whose job entails monitoring product placement actually block WebMD. It’s not only a waste of time, but it’s also a disorder in and of itself — one that preys on the fear and vulnerability of its users to sell them half-truths and, eventually, pills.

But if careering around the Web doing symptom searches is your bag (and, come on, we’ve all been there), there’s still MayoClinic.com. Where WebMD is a corporation that started as an ad-supported health-alarmism site with revenues of $504 million in 2010, the Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit medical-practice-and-research group that started as a clinic.

So if you too get regular emails from WebMD, you are better off blocking it and going to the Mayo site or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if you have medical related questions.


  1. wondering says

    Is the medical info about what a disease is, what the symptoms are etc reliable info on WebMD and only the treatment that is suspect? Or is all of it suspect?

  2. invivoMark says

    It might be a consequence of the article being very outdated, but I have never found any misinformation or evidence of “shilling” on WebMD. While I do find the Mayo Clinic’s website to have a more pleasing layout and superior writing, I think that’s largely a matter of opinion.

    Doing as the author suggests -- comparing Google results for “headaches mayo clinic” vs” headaches webmd” -- produced pretty much the same result: lists of webpages about headaches from the respective websites. None of the colorful images or news stories the author describes were there. Nothing indicated which website would provide superior or less biased information.

    Moreover, even where WebMD does provide treatment suggestions, it seems to be fair. It does not seem to favor any one drug company over another, it suggests using generics when available, and it warns against overusing drugs. Case in point: its page on headaches suggests aspirin or other NSAIDS, lists multiple brands from different companies, and warns not to take them too frequently. The banner ads might be obnoxious, but it probably isn’t the decision of WebMD to choose specifically which ads are run.

    I won’t say that WebMD is superior to Mayo Clinic, but if what Ms. Heffernan wrote in 2011 was once true, it no longer seems to be.

  3. says

    My husband and I call it, “The Internet of Death” because there is no symptom so benign that WebMD won’t list some horrible life-threatening disease as a possible cause. I think the last symptom I looked up there was a possible indicator of either a mild allergy or lymphoma.

  4. Mano Singham says


    I’m not sure but I personally would be skeptical since diagnosis and suggested treatment are so closely linked.

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