An Unhealthy Mix

October 7, 2010

When you have a health problem, the Internet can be both a blessing and a curse. Web sites can provide a multitude of factual knowledge about your condition and help you decide how to treat it, but they can can also lead you to advertiser-tinted pseudo-facts and dubious treatments. And then there are the forums: some people post useful anecdotes about how they handled having X disease, while others—many whose own treatment was botched—tell a tale of gloom and doom for anyone who suffers from X.

In other words, information about health care is complex and often subjective. To utilize it best, one needs to be quite good at discerning a fact from a claim, and a piece of research from a sales ad. In today’s consumer culture, that task keeps getting more difficult.

The New York Times offers an insightful piece about Sharecare.com, “an interactive social Q.& A. platform to provide consumers with what they want to know on health and wellness subjects.” Stop right there. What consumers want to know is not necessarily what consumers need to know.

And that’s not the worst of it. According to the Times, Sharecare.com will include content from such entities as The American Cancer Society and AARP, as well as such “experts” as Dr. Oz, who, according to his very busy web site, has a blog, a television program, and a radio show, in addition to being one of Oprah Winfrey’s darlings. It would seem that he has a vested interest in telling consumers what they want to know.

The scariest part of the Times article tells about the “knowledge partners”:

marketers that are paying an estimated $1 million to $7 million to become sponsors of Sharecare.com. The initial roster is composed of Colgate-Palmolive, for Colgate oral care products; the Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals division of Johnson & Johnson; the Medicines Company, a drug maker; Pfizer; Unilever, for Dove skin-care products; UnitedHealthcare, the health insurer; and Walgreen, for its Walgreens drug stores.

When will consumers wake up? Information offered by salepeople is inherently suspicious. The common good and big business are an unhealthy mix. While the home page of Sharecare.com may look tempting—shifting boxes with such labels as “How can I get my kids off of junk food?” and “What is a rebounder?”—the plot thickens once you click on a box. For example, in addition to telling you what a rebounder is, the answer, from a doctor whose Sharecare.com page you can access with a click, includes links to that doctor’s books, which you can purchase with yet another click!

Information plus an opportunity to purchase products may be the current American way, but I don’t think it’s the right way. When you have a health problem, you need uncluttered facts first. The decision to buy anything should come later, once you’ve completely educated yourself about what’s happening to your body. Combining the power of knowledge with purchasing power is an unhealthy mix. Shame on you, Sharecare.com.

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