Health News: Best and Worst Sites for Patients


In a critical review of major news organizations' online health coverage, some sites fared better than others.

In a critical review of major news organizations' online health coverage, some sites fared better than others.

Thanks to popular health sites like WebMD and extensive health reporting by major news outlets and magazines, it’s easier than ever for patients to stay in the know about the latest treatment breakthroughs, clinical trial results, and screening recommendations.

But the 24-hour stream of online health news cuts both ways.

Although it’s created a generation of more educated patients, it also provides more opportunities for sub-par reporting to influence patients’ decisions about their care. That’s the philosophy behind the newly upgraded Health News Review, a site that uses 10 rigorous criteria to evaluate online news stories about medical treatments, tests, products, and procedures.

Published by veteran health journalist Gary Schwitzer and funded by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, the project is run by an interdisciplinary panel of 30 journalists, physicians, health researchers, and public health experts. Reviews target only stories that make claims of efficacy or safety—information patients are most likely to consider when choosing whether to get screened or try a new drug.

Teaching patients the ABCs of reliable data

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 59% of US adults search the Web for information about medical treatments, diseases, and doctors. But Schwitzer says say too many medical news stories lack the “ABCs” of good journalism: accuracy, balance, and completeness.

Whether it’s an overblown claim about a “miracle” cancer treatment or an experimental “wonder drug” that hasn’t been tested in humans, articles that turn up in searches are often misleading or fail to answer critical questions. Schwitzer and his crew of skeptics aim to help people do their own research more effectively by teaching them to see the news through a critical lens.

Ultimately, they hope the project will lead to better health reporting. “We hold the bar high for quality in health care journalism because it plays a major role in educating consumers,” the site explains.

Grading the news: Which sites measure up?

Health News Review recently underwent a makeover, complete with a patient-friendly interactive chart ranking 20 news organizations according to how well they’ve scored over time. Stories that earn 5 stars answer all or most of the following questions about a treatment or procedure:

  • What’s the total cost?
  • How often do benefits occur?
  • How often do harms occur?
  • How strong is the evidence?
  • Is this condition exaggerated?
  • Are there alternative options?
  • Is this really a new approach?
  • Is it available to me?
  • Who’s promoting this?
  • Do they have a conflict of interest?

Dave DeBronkart, who writes about participatory medicine for the blog, used the new chart to find out which sites make the grade and which fall short. His analysis revealed that, out of 1650 total stories reviewed, top performers included the LA Times, the Associated Press, New York Times, National Public Radio, and USA Today. Each earned 4 to 5 stars at least 52% of the time and 0 to 2 stars between 18% and 24% of the time.

At the bottom of the list were Time, CNN, US News, WebMD, and Newsweek, with the following overall scores:

  • Time earned 4 to 5 stars 39% of the time and 0 to 2 stars 34% of the time.
  • CNN earned 4 to 5 stars 36% of the time and 0 to 2 stars 34% of the time.
  • US News earned 4 to 5 stars 19% of the time and 0 to 2 stars 26% of the time.
  • WebMD earned 4 to 5 stars 39% of the time and 0 to 2 stars 43% of the time.
  • Out of 10 Newsweek stories reviewed, two had 5 stars, four had 3 stars, and four had 2 stars.

Citing DeBronkart’s comparison on his blog, Schwitzer said the variability of the scores shows why patients need to take a measured, questioning approach to any news story about a new test or treatment. Even news outlets that typically do a good job of fulfilling the 10 criteria received 0 to 2 stars 18% of the time, he noted.

“Someday perhaps your doctor’s office will have an ‘information coach,’ but even then, Health News Review will still be more accessible,” Schwitzer wrote. “You really do need to evaluate each story separately."

For other articles in this issue, see:

  • Should Plan B Stay Behind the Counter?
  • FDA to Investigate Bleeding Risk of Dabigatran

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