NetDoctor: The medical advice website that recommends alternative medical treatments that have been shown not to work

The NetDoctor website provides online information and medical advice to patients. This includes medically focused articles and the opportunity to have specific questions answered by the NetDoctor team. NetDoctor subscribes to appropriate ethical guidelines including “Any claims relating to the benefits/performance of a specific treatment, commercial product or service will be supported by appropriate, balanced evidence.” However, some of the advice provided on the NetDoctor website is not evidence based and includes recommendations of “alternative” treatments that have been shown to be ineffective. Specific issues with the content of their site include:

  • Recommending treatments which do not have an evidence base or have been shown not to work. This includes osteopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture and homeopathy.
  • Sometimes providing an online diagnosis based on very little information.

I contacted NetDoctor about the misleading advice on their site. Whilst there are many articles that are misleading and lack an evidence base behind the recommendations being made, I opted to highlight just three of the worst offenders when contacting NetDoctor.

Here is the message I sent to NetDoctor on 20/09/16:

I think it’s great that patients have a resource like your website where they can go for independent medical information and advice. It is also good that you subscribe to appropriate ethical guidelines including “Any claims relating to the benefits/performance of a specific treatment, commercial product or service will be supported by appropriate, balanced evidence.” However, some of the articles on your website give advice that is not evidence based, does not follow the ethical guidelines and is therefore misleading to patients.

I’d like to highlight three specific articles that are amongst the most misleading. The first article
(http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/ask-the-expert/pregnancy-and-family/a10060/i-am-pregnant-what-can-i-do-to-stop-myself-feeling-sick-all-day/)
provides advice to someone who is feeling sick during pregnancy. Within this article, homeopathy and acupuncture are recommended. However, neither of these recommendations are evidence based. Homeopathy, for instance, has been repeatedly shown to be no more effective than placebo for any condition and is “scientifically implausible” (see http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/45/4502.htm) I therefore believe it is completely inappropriate for your website to recommend homeopathy as a treatment for sickness during pregnancy.

The second article
(http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/ask-the-expert/aches-and-pains/a2561/do-i-have-sciatica/
) includes an online diagnosis of sciatica and then goes on to recommend an osteopath because “they can treat this kind of problem quite successfully”. Firstly, from the very brief description of symptoms from the patient it would seem to be inappropriate to make a diagnosis (“you almost certainly have sciatica”). Furthermore, the NICE guidelines for sciatica recommend specifically against the use of spinal manipulation (such as that provided by an osteopath) and the recommended treatment is therefore not evidence based. It would surely be far more appropriate to refer the patient to their GP so that they can be given an actual diagnosis and an appropriate treatment.

The third article
(http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/ask-the-expert/brain-and-nervous-system/a304/homoeopathic-remedies-for-cerebral-palsy/)
advises a parent of a child with cerebral palsy to use homeopathy. As mentioned earlier, this has been repeatedly shown to be no more effective than placebo for any condition and is “scientifically implausible”. This advice is therefore not evidence based. There is the risk that parents of a child with cerebral palsy reading this may decide to pursue homeopathy treatment when other conventional treatments would be much more appropriate.

None of these articles comply with your own ethical guidelines, do not provide a balance, evidenced based view and are therefore misleading to patients. Could you please remove these and any similar articles from your website? I look forward to hearing from you.

Having heard nothing I sent a follow up on 19th October. To date, I’ve still had no response. It’s rather concerning that a site like NetDoctor is promoting treatments that are either unproven or have actually been shown not to work. It’s particularly disappointing that they are failing to comply with their own ethical guidelines and have not taken any action to address these problems when they were highlighted. This really brings into question the rest of the advice provided on the site.

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