Legal watchdog warns against health Web sites sponsored by personal injury lawyers

The SE Texas Record Mar. 25, 2008, 10:22am

Press release from Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse

AUSTIN -- Health-related Web sites sponsored by personal injury lawyers may appear to be credible online resources but are often designed to "sell, deceive or frighten" health care consumers, according to a new national study by the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.

The CMPI study found that many "medical information" Web sites have not been created by reputable health care sources, but by personal injury lawyers trolling for clients.

"As more and more patients rely on the Internet for health information, it's important to distinguish between bona fide health resources and cleverly-masked personal injury lawyer Web sites," said Dr. Evelyn Tobias Merrill, a board-certified family physician, board member of Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse and the spokesperson for the national Sick of Lawsuits campaign. "Misleading or inaccurate information sponsored by some personal injury lawyers poses a serious health threat, especially if bad information shapes patients' healthcare decisions."

Bobby Jenkins, Chairman of the Central Texas Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA), said Texas CALAs are concerned by this aggressive trolling for clients that has now spread to the Internet.

"These aggressive tactics are very powerful," Jenkins said. "Consumers need to be very aware of the health information they find on the Internet and we urge them to talk to their doctor if they are thinking of changing their course of treatment based on something they have seen or heard."

Specifically, the CMPI study found:

  • Patient's seeking expert advice about their ailments or medications are instead directed to Web sites designed to create and exploit medical anxiety.
  • These Web sites dominate the results from searches for health information.
  • 65 percent of search results on two FDA-approved prescription drugs – Crestor and Avandia – were for sites containing biased or unverified negative information. Nearly half of the first three pages of search results belonged to class action law firms or legal marketing sites searching for plaintiff referrals.

    Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott recently issued a Consumer Alert urging Texans to check the source of online health information. In its alert, the AG's office noted that what often appears to be a medically-oriented Web site may be an advertising tool for a third party with a vested financial interest in promoting its particular view.

    CALA leaders from around the state joined Merrill and Jenkins for press conference March 25 including Bill Summers, president, Rio Grande Valley CALA; Connie Scott, representing Bay Area Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse; and Diane Davis, executive director, East Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse.

    The Texas Academy of Family Physician (TAFP) issued a statement in conjunction with the news conference, warning patients to "use a discerning eye when seeking medical advice or other health information on the Internet." The Texas Medical Association and TAFP both offered consumers tips on how to find trustworthy medical information Web sites.

    According to the CMPI study, roughly 8 million Americans search for health information online every day. (Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project). Seventy percent of Americans in the Pew study said they had access to the Internet, and 80 percent of those said they've turned to the Internet for health information at some point. Unfortunately, three quarters of these individuals rarely, if ever, check the sources of the material they find.

    Merrill noted that the CMPI study shows more and more patients are basing medical decisions on information found online. The CMPI results track other studies, including a July 2007 study from Prospectiv, an online advertising firm, in which more than seven in 10 respondents said they viewed the Internet as "their most trusted and reliable resource for researching ailment and drug information." Additionally, 35 percent of consumers participating in a recent Pew survey said the information they found online affected a decision about whether to see a doctor.

    "These statistics are especially disturbing when you know, as the recent CMPI shows, that much of the medical 'information' on the Web is designed to 'sell, deceive or frighten' rather than inform," said Merrill.

    From the CMPI study, it is obvious that one new technique for gathering parties for class action lawsuits is to create Web sites which patients will find when searching for medical advice, Merrill added.

    "Clearly, these Web sites cannot be relied upon for balanced and accurate information," Merrill said. "Basing medical decisions on propaganda and fear pushed by personal injury lawyers could have a devastating result on a patient's health. Doctors, not lawyers, are the best source for health information."

    Merrill noted that while Americans say their health care decisions can be influenced by lawyer advertising, most also recognize that many of the lawyers involved in this process are more interested in making money than in helping patients. According to a 2005 survey by the national Sick of Lawsuits campaign:

  • Eight of 10 Americans surveyed believe that personal injury lawyers who file lawsuits over medicines and other healthcare remedies are more interested in making money than in helping patients.
  • 79 percent of those surveyed are concerned that frivolous lawsuits have made it harder for them and their family to get affordable health care.

    "These aggressive and ever-present personal injury lawyer advertisements and Web sites hurt our health and our health care system when they encourage people to make medical decisions without talking to their doctor or when they encourage people who haven't been injured to sue," Merrill concluded.

    Merrill urged Texas consumers to protect themselves with a few simple guidelines:

  • Know the source of the information on the Web site and its purpose.
  • When you need medical information, ask your doctor, not a lawyer
  • Don't believe everything you read. In his forward to the CMPI study, CMPI President Peter Pitts quotes Mark Twain, "Beware of health books. You might die of a misprint." And the same can be said of the World Wide Web.

    Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse is a nonprofit, nonpartisan grassroots watchdog organization dedicated to educating the public about the costs and consequences of lawsuit abuse and ensuring that our legal system is used for justice, not greed. Visit CALA online:

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