CNN Food and Health

Medical misinformation on the information superhighway

August 30, 1995

From Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Schwartz

(CNN) -- Medical advice on the Internet can be hazardous to your health. How can you avoid misinformation on the information superhighway?

There's no such thing as a police force in cyberspace. So there's plenty of pornography, violence, and questionable medical advice online.

You can find advice to take something called "super blue- green algae" to lose weight. Or you can find information on megadoses of vitamin C to help treat lung cancer.

[Shot of a computer screen] When we got online, we looked specifically at messages regarding medicine. But beware, anyone can log onto the Internet, the World Wide Web, or other servers, and they can say anything they want on any topic.

Dr. Timothy Gorski is a member of the National Council Against Health Fraud. He says the government should protect people from harmful medical advice online. "The doctors are in a position to know when they are being fed a line of bologna, but the general public is not."

[Doctor Tom Ferguson] Another physician who's writing a book about online medical resources disagrees. Dr. Tom Ferguson, author of "Health Online" says that surfing the Internet is just an electronic way of socializing. "There might be some very good information you get and there might be some really off the wall information you get and people need to make the choice and be discriminating."

Prodigy says that they almost never edit bulletin board messages. "We really believe in freedom of expression, and we don't believe we are there to tell members what they should be talking about or what they should be saying," says Carol Wallace of Prodigy.

But Prodigy won't let people sell phony medical products online. The Federal Trade Commission says giving advice is fine but selling worthless medical products is illegal. "One thing we've learned at the FTC about scam artists is that there never is an opportunity. They went from the mail to the phones to 900 numbers. They're always out there ready to take advantage of the next turn in technology," says Christine Varney of the FTC.

[Woman at computer] Some people who used medical bulletin boards say the government should leave well enough alone. Barbara Moskowitz is one of those people. "I can't imagine how someone in the federal government would pretend to know what is bad medicine and what is good medicine in some of the diseases where treatments are changing so quickly."

So far, the government hasn't caught anyone selling phony medical products online but since more and more people are going online every day, they say it's probably just a matter of time.



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