Corporate Interests Behind WebMD’s Friendly, Free Advice

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

The content of WebMD, the popular medical and health information and advice web site, reflects a fundamental conflict between “a business model that is reliant on pleasing BigPharma and other advertisers, and unbiased healthcare information that serves the public,” reports Terry J. Allen of In These Times.  For example, in 2010, no matter how you answered one of its questionnaires, WebMD diagnosed you with depression and “linked you to a river of pills.”  Investigations determined that Eli Lilly, which produces and markets some of the recommended medications, had sponsored the questionnaire.  Since then WebMD officials assured the public that they have reformed their reliance on industry funded content, but In These Times‘ report suggests otherwise.

For example the WebMD feature titled “Close The Gap” examines increased rates of heart disease among minorities.  This section of the site is created and sponsored by Boston Scientific, which sells almost $8 billion annually in medical devices, especially those related to cardiac surgery. As Allen reports, “You need to click on a link to reveal the disclaimer that content ‘is not reviewed by the WebMD Editorial department for accuracy, objectivity or balance.’”

WebMD gathers visitors’ personal data as another lucrative revenue stream. Personal information–including health-related matters that might be personally embarrassing or potentially job-threatening–is collected, used internally and sold.  The site’s privacy policy warns visitors that it collects “personal information” when they sign up for newsletters or other services on the site. It does not, however, tell you what they do with the collected information.

“The deeper problem is not the soundness of WebMD’s information,” In These Times reports. “Rather, the site’s often-useful material and reasonable blandness promote trust that makes it easier to steer visitors to sponsors, and sometimes to frighten them toward unnecessary testing, procedures and drugs.”



Terry J. Allen, “Doctor Who: The corporations behind WebMD’s friendly, free advice,” In These Times, August 28, 2012,


Student Researcher: Anthony McGovern (College of Marin)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)