Doctors are urging Google to set up better controls to prevent users accessing web pages that make false medical claims.
In an article published on bmj.com today, Dr Marco Masoni and colleagues at the University of Florence in Italy said the internet is not well policed and regulated, and suggested it was up to the medical community to be vigilant and to suggest improvements.
Dr Masoni recently used Google Italia to search on the keyword “aloe” and found sponsored links to websites recommending aloe arborescens for the prevention and treatment of cancer and offering it for sale.
AdWords is “Google’s flagship advertising product” and was its “main source of revenue in 2007.” Through it, users can create advertisements, choose their own key words, and decide which Google queries their advertisements should match. Google decides on placement on its pages of search results: which advertisements to show and in what order.
The authors argue that Google filters must be improved especially given that it wishes to enter the healthcare arena.
“We think that a necessary first step for Google is to improve its filters and algorithms so as to prevent possible harm to its users,” said the authors.
But in a second article Joanne Shaw from NHS Direct, argued that the Internet had brought health benefits.
“We are experiencing a healthcare reformation,” she said, "The internet has brought the canon of medical knowledge into the hands and homes of ordinary people, and this should be welcomed and encouraged as good for patients and doctors alike."
It is true that the internet may be a further source of alarm for the worried well, but equally it encourages early presentation and action that could improve survival and reduce complications from long term conditions, she writes.
Furthermore, the internet does not diminish the role of doctors but casts them as expert advisers rather than authoritarian figures with exclusive guardianship of special knowledge denied to ordinary people.
Many doctors already act according to those principles, and many patients will continue to want a more traditional style of relationship with their doctors. But people who look to the internet as a legitimate tool to help them with their health may already be in the majority and this is something for us to celebrate, she concludes.