Millions of people use websites like WebMD every day to gain insight on a range of medical issues from cancer to mental health. This practice, or “cyberchondria,” is a new digital phenomenon that has resulted from online databases of free, medical information.
With about 74 million users each month, the information on WebMD provides some with clarity for our most intimate and confusing health concerns, but for others, it could be a source of anxiety. In a recent article published in GOOD Magazine, Fordham University Center for Ethics Education Bioethicist Dr. Elizabeth Yuko addressed the “ethical gray area” of web diagnosis and online symptom checkers.
“Websites and algorithms are not held to the Hippocratic Oath. Because WebMD is a media organization, rather than an individual medical professional, it is not held to the same legal and ethical accountability as individual practitioners,” notes Dr. Yuko. Unlike WebMD, other online communities and health professionals must operate under ethics codes and guidelines designed by organizations such as American Medical Association and American Psychological Association.
As far as legal liability is concerned, Dr. Yuko explained that because WebMD’s Terms and Conditions state “This Site Does Not Provide Medical Advice,” the website is not “legally obligated to provide a worst-case scenario” while most health professionals, at least in the United States, are held accountable if they do not provide patients with complete information regarding their health conditions.
Dr. Yuko, however, is most concerned with the use of health care sites as a substitute for obtaining diagnoses because people “can’t afford in-person care.”
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.