• 3/5/2003
  • San Diego, CA
  • Scott C. Matthews, MD
  • Psychosomatics

Following a simple checklist may help people separate fact from fiction in finding information about alternative cancer treatments on the Web. A new study shows that applying four basic criteria to Internet sources of information about herbal and other alternative cancer treatments might help steer people away from dubious web sites.

Researchers say the Internet has become an important source of medical information. But the quality of the information varies greatly, especially in regard to complementary or alternative medicine treatments that have not been widely studied.

By evaluating web sites according to four “red flag” criteria, researchers say they were able to quickly screen sites for likely scientific accuracy.

The study, published in the March-April issue of Psychosomatics, recommends that people avoid sites containing one or more of the following red flags in regard to alternative cancer treatments:

• Online purchasing of the product/therapy described is available.

• The description of the treatment includes patient testimonials.

• The treatment is described as a “cancer cure.”

• The treatment is described as “having no side effects.”

Researchers applied this checklist to searches for three common herbal treatments frequently used by cancer patients: floressence, amalaki, and selenium. They found over 90% of the sites for floressence and amalaki had at least one red flag. These sites provided a large amount of vague and inaccurate information.

In contrast, those sites without any red flags provided some scientifically accurate information and included links to scientific organizations such as the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

“There is a staggering amount of medical misinformation on the Internet,” writes researcher Scott C. Matthews, MD, and colleagues at the University of California, San Diego. “When patients search the Internet for information on a topic for which there is little objective clinical research, use of these red flag questions may help identify questionable sites.”