In 2013, 72 percent of Internet users said they searched the web for health information within the past year according to a Pew Research Center survey.
But that information might not be what it seems according to Alex John London, a Carnegie Mellon University professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Ethics and Policy.
Instead, what could seem to be unbiased material could actually be an advertisement from the hospital.
“The concern is if when they go to the hospital web page, what they’re consuming is advertising material, and they don’t realize that that’s what they are consuming, then this could have … implications for the quality of the medical decision that they make,” London said.
In JAMA Internal Medicine, London and Yael Schenker, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, provided commentary on a research article claiming that hospitals are failing to disclose risk information for heart valve replacement.
“They (the researchers) found that the advertising for the web pages tended to focus on benefits, mention benefits, quite frequently, and then have less frequently disclosed potential risks or harms,” London said.
London is concerned advertisements such as these could have too much impact on medical decisions and could sway someone from one procedure to another.
“It can be very difficult for patients themselves to be able to tell when the information that they’re receiving is skewed or when it’s sort of a complete set of information,” London said.
London and Schenker identified four “risk concerns” for those searching for medical information online – identifying advertising, finding unbiased information, recognizing incomplete or imbalanced information and influence on health care decisions.
He said he understands the need for hospitals to advertise but said these ads should be marked as such so that patients don’t believe that they’re in an education portal where they think they are consuming information that can rely on to make a healthcare decision.
“We certainly recognize the legitimacy of hospitals advertising their services, but there needs to be some constraints on how they do that, so that they’re not in doing so sort of priming patients to come in and make decisions that aren’t as good for them as they otherwise could,” London said.