Let's say that, like at least 70 million other Americans this year, you're going on to the Internet in search of information about a medical condition. In this case, you're wondering whether you have an allergy to latex and decide to visit several commercial personal health sites to learn more.
Perform a search using the words "latex allergy" at Discoveryhealth.com, a Web offshoot of the cable giant Discovery Channel, and you'll find nine articles, including one excellent question-and-answer interview with a doctor at Johns Hopkins University.
At Americasdoctor.com, a site that offers live e-consultations with docs, the search results in just two references, but one is handily titled Treatment for Latex Allergies. CBSHealthwatch.com, the consumer-oriented site of an electronic publishing company that primarily serves doctors, puts out three well-researched articles on the topic. Healthcentral.com yields 10 good hits. Onhealth.com, soon to be absorbed into Healtheon/WebMD, coughs out three useful items.
But Drkoop.com, the site founded by the popular former U.S. surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, is oddly silent on the topic. Zero hits on latex allergies. Searching with just the word "latex" kicks out a list of items, including stories involving latex condoms, but none provides substantial information about diagnosis or treatment of latex allergies.
One lesson here is that online health Web sites vary significantly in quality and ambition. But in the case of Drkoop.com's performance on the latex-allergy search, there could be something more unsettling at work.
In 1999, Koop testified before Congress that fears of latex allergies in medical personnel were highly exaggerated--without disclosing that he had held a $1-million consulting contract with a company that makes, among many other things, latex medical gloves. The episode was one of several embarrassing ethical controversies that have dogged the medal-laden public servant since he entered private life. A Drkoop.com spokesman says the omission is "totally unrelated" to the controversy over Koop's latex testimony.
Welcome to the murky world of Internet health and medicine for consumers, where it's hard to tell who is providing information, how good it is and what the provider's ulterior motives might be.
Although the sites offer what could be some of the most important information for which people turn to the World Wide Web, the operators of these sites are not necessarily committed foremost to meeting that public need.
Insurer's Role Isn't Explained Clearly
Take, for instance, InteliHealth.com, one of the Internet's most popular and well-regarded health sites, and a just-announced partner, beginning July 31, with Harvard Medical School. InteliHealth uses (and has trademarked) the slogan "the Trusted Source." Unfortunately, it is not a very good source of information about who owns it--the financially troubled health insurer Aetna U.S. Healthcare, which is under fire for practices that allegedly rewarded doctors for denying care to patients.
Although Aetna's president recently proclaimed InteliHealth "a critical component of our Internet strategy," you won't find a reference to Aetna on the home page, in the About Us area or even in the news releases. (If you enter the word "Aetna" in the site's search engine, you'll find a few pages mentioning Aetna and several Aetna insurance products, but none clearly identifies it as the owner of InteliHealth.)
Things get curiouser at WebMD, where if you click on a link called My Health Plan--a place where users might reasonably expect (cool!) to find information about the plan they happen to be in--you get only a page of links listing services available to members of a health plan operated by Humana Inc. The My Health Plan link is not identified as a sponsored page--something the site's proprietors piously promise in a series of online pledges will never happen on its turf. It also fails to note that Humana, the pioneering for-profit health care company, is among Healtheon/WebMD's strategic partners.