When dealing with a website like WebMD that gives you information and advice about your health, it’s only natural to ask whether the information you’re getting is coming from a medical professional or a quack. And, as you would expect, the answer is more complicated than a simple “yes” or no”. Read on to find out more.
The Seal of Approval
WebMD has at least 4 licensed medical doctors permanently on its content editing board, and takes contributions from over 100 other doctors and medical experts from around the United States. WebMD itself has also been accredited by the Utilization Review and Accreditation Commission — a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting quality healthcare and health information in the U.S. — for every year since 2001. They have also won numerous awards in the American medical community, which you can read about here.
The Question Mark
As credible as WebMD appears to be, there are some people who are wary of trusting WebMD because they believe it is too commercial in nature. Specifically, they are worried that WebMD’s sponsorship relations with pharmaceutical manufacturers cause them to dispense medical advice that makes it more likely for consumers to purchase products from those companies. For example, WebMD was investigated in 2010 by an American senator for having their depression screening quiz sponsored by the manufacturer of a leading anti-depressant. Intuitively, you could assume that WebMD offers advice on depression from people who have figured out how to treat it, but some people still believe that there are hidden motives in this model that are more about profiteering than benevolence.
The Bottom Line
To sum up, WebMD has medical doctors permanently on their staff, has earned a seal of approval from America’s largest independent healthcare oversight organization for some time now, and has won numerous medical awards, so their information is pretty good. With that said, WebMD is a commercial website that makes money through advertising and sponsorships, and so some believe that the information on it may be serving as marketing spin as well as — or even more than — advice about your well-being.
The solution, then, is to think critically and maintain a bit of skepticism. The information on WebMD may be factually correct, but it may not necessarily be relevant to you. It is only meant as a guideline. The only person who will know what is best for your health with any amount of certainty is a trained health professional, so talk to your doctor about any information or advice you get from WebMD before you do anything else.
So, what are WebMD's strong and weak points as an online provider of health information? Read on and find out.
No medical bills to cover — WebMD is free to sign up for and use.
Become a pill pro — Check common drugs for side effects and other advisories before you buy them, in order to know if they're safe for you to use or not.
No quacks here — WebMD's information is accredited by the largest health verification board in the United States, so most of it is fairly reliable.
Find out what you might be coming down with — The "Symptom Checker" feature helps you figure out what might be the cause of a health problem you're having, so you can have an informed discussion with your doctor about what your next steps should be.
Find where to go for your health needs — WebMD contains local directories of hospitals, pharmacies, and physicians, so you'll know where to go if you ever have an emergency while out of town.
Ads are the price of admission — Since WebMD is a free service, you're going to see advertisements all over the place. Do your best to ignore them.
Remember that your health isn't something to be bought — Some people say that WebMD favours some products or companies over others when it comes to their advice, because of their corporate partnerships. While we can't confirm or deny that, we will say to think critically about anything that you read, especially on the Internet.
Be sure to get a second opinion — While WebMD's "Symptom Checker" (or any other piece of information or advice on WebMD) is a good starting point when it comes to figuring out what might be ailing you, remember that it is in no way meant to outright replace your doctor. Only a trained physician is able to accurately diagnose you, so once you've checked out some possibilities on WebMD, be sure to follow up by discussing them with your associated health care professional.
Bottom Line: 9/10
While it's easy to be skeptical of a website offering health information in a place like the Internet, where it seems like almost anything goes, WebMD stands on pretty solid ground. Despite allegations of bias in its advice columns (which — let's face it — are bound to come up, since WebMD is a free service that relies on advertising to pay the bills), it's primarily a website about information: what common drugs do, where to find a doctor, or what you might be coming down with. Though not meant to replace a doctor, WebMD might give you the information you need to help your doctor best take care of you.
These days, it seems like there are so many people and companies out there claiming that they've found a new magic diet pill or miracle food or alternative exercise/therapy regimen. It's difficult enough to decide what's legitimate or not, let alone stop second-guessing your health to the point where you wonder if you have a condition that needs some kind of product or treatment to fix. Thankfully, WebMD is here to put your mind at ease.
Created in 1999 by Jim Clark, Pavan Nigam, and Robert Draughon, WebMD is a free online portal for health information. It contains news and advice on exercise and body care, food and dieting, sex/relationships/pregnancy, parenting, and even how to navigate choosing a physician or health insurance plan. Its features include:
A "Symptom Checker" function to learn about possible conditions you may have (discuss them with your doctor!)
A directory of pharmacies, physicians, and hospitals
An index of common prescription drugs and their specifications
Online journals (blogs) from physicians and other health experts
You can also subscribe to specific newsletters to let WebMD send you news on health topics and conditions that matter to you. And all of this information is accredited by the largest health care oversight organization in the United States, so you can rest easy knowing that it's coming from a real doctor and not a quack.