WebMD Debunked: evaluating the credibility behind online health information

Written By Maria Gutierrez

I’m sure the title of this article may have grabbed the attention of some of you. Assuming this article would reveal to you that your once so-called “tele-doc” has actually been a modern hoax. But before you start calling your lawyers, let’s talk about the real reason behind this argument – freedom of information.

The modern media landscape looks very different than what it did not long ago. As the internet continues to expand and influence many aspects of our daily lives, different issues arise and begin to lure us in. A recent thought-provoking debate focuses on the difference between “user-generated content” (UGC) versus “traditional content.” With the current expansion of the World Wide Web, now referred to as Web 2.0, we’re seeing a huge shift in the expression of content. Content that was once generated by software is now being generated by people. The web has upgraded from the old fashioned, static web pages, to more dynamic and user-friendly settings. However, the problem with this paradigm shift circles around two skeptical observations:

1) Increasing abundance of free, easy-to-use,  blogging software has created a decline in restrictions for anonymous web sources to share information.

2) Web 2.0 has formulated a platform for web page developers to market value their content based on user activity.

So, how does this relate to WebMD?

Well, according to Wikimedian and librarian Phoebe Ayers (2008), online communities like Wikipedia depend on honorable (but often times anonymous) community members to continuously write and edit content: a liberty that does not require educational qualifications from contributors, such as college degrees, on the topics that they are editing or writing about. This can be rather problematic for websites containing health information read by ordinary viewers. Especially those whom are unaware, and often times dependent on, the free and digestible health information these communities provide. Despite all this ambiguity, integrity remains amongst a few common info-seeking websites, including WebMD.

According to WebMD’s editing policies, “all newcontent created is free from influence by sponsors, partners, or other sources.” In hopes of simplifying the editing policies performed at the WebMD headquarters, I’ve narrowed it down to a few bullet points:

  • Each week a staff of physicians and medical journalists review health content containing the latest information from important medical journals, news updates from federal health agencies, and general health trends.
  • Each story is then reviewed by a medical editor for accurate, appropriate, and easily understood use of medical language. Substituting phrases such as, “You may have rhino pharyngitis.” with: “Your symptoms are often attributed to the common cold.”
  • After that, the content is reviewed once again by an “Editorial Editor” who oversees the story’s flow and proper use of health information.  
  • Finally, when the story is thoroughly polished, it transfers from editing to publishing where it’s converted to HTML.

Here’s the catch. Remember when we talked about web developers using Web 2.0 as a marketing tool for profit? According to their website, WebMD seeks out sponsorship and advertisements from relevant manufacturers to provide health information. They claim this form of advertisement enables them to offer their content at no cost. Nevertheless, that content isn’t subject to WebMD’s editing policies: “The sponsor is responsible for the accuracy and objectivity of their content and the content is not reviewed by the WebMD Editorial Department for accuracy, objectivity, or balance” (WebMD, 2017).

But before you start getting distressed, let me bring up a somewhat positive opposition. In comparison to many health information websites that only provide the author’s name, WebMD identifies all material that comes from a sponsor. Below you’ll find an image from the WebMD website showing how they label it.

So you’re probably wondering, “Well, is WebMD reliable or not?” That’s a difficult question to answer, especially given that none of us know how credible these sponsors really are. Further research should place emphasis on evaluating the credibility behind online health information and their content sources. Just last year, the National Institutes of Health proposed the creation of a complete online archive for all medical and biological research that would give everyone easy and free access to the latest medical research (BMJ, 2017). So, things are looking bright in the realm of public health information. Maybe soon we’ll be using the term “Public Health 2.0” instead.  

Here are some suggestions for addressing credibility:

  • Ask yourself, who wrote this information? Who sponsors the website? Is it clear how you can reach the sponsor? Look for the credentials of the author to make sure the information is written by a health professional.
  • Try going to reputable websites such as federal, state, or non-governmental health organizations (e.g., the CDC, NIH, FDA, etc.).
  • Be cautious of commercial health websites with addresses ending in “.com” Try seeking information on websites ending in “.gov, “.edu” or “.org”
  • Always cross-reference health information before jumping to conclusions. Do not self- diagnose yourself. Always consult your doctor/physician before making any medical decisions or changes to your health behavior.

Edited By: Kelli Selwyn 


Maria Gutierrez is a 4th year Health Education & Behavior major at the University of Florida. She’s currently a full-time research assistant for Dr. Stellefson from the department of Health Education & Behavior.