Ex-Bush FDA Reps Criticize Google On Health Search

    January 8, 2008
    WebProNews Staff

The Center for Medicine in the Public Interest (CMPI) has concerns about searching the Internet for health-related information, but we have concerns about CMPI.

We noted earlier that Google sends loads of traffic to healthcare sites. Per figures from Hitwise, Google sent health and medical sites tracked by the metrics company over 28 percent of their December 2007 traffic.

CMPI has concerns about those searches. They dropped a report into the inbox titled “Insta-Americans: The Empowered (and Imperiled) Health Care Consumer in the Age of Internet Medicine.”

The group presented a look at searches for Crestor, a cholesterol medication; Avandia, a diabetes drug; teen suicides and Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs; and autism and vaccines.

“The Web is home to many important sources of authoritative medical information including the National Institutes of Health, its related National Library of Medicine and medical specialty group web sites,” said CMRI. “However they are rarely the sites that show up or are seen first.”

Peter Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner and contributor to the CMRI report, criticized the heavy presence of lawyers, attorney referral services, herbal alternative treatments, and information websites run by people and groups “ideologically opposed to pharmaceuticals.”

Interesting stuff, to be certain. But when this kind of report drops over the transom, so to speak, from a new source, we’re always curious about who’s passing these juicy tidbits along.

A search on Google for Pitts shows his associate commissioner position as being for external relations at FDA. In other words, a marketing position.

An odd choice to head up something called Center for Medicine in the Public Interest. We had the naïve expectation a doctor or similar professional would be running the show. Curiouser and curiouser, we decided to poke this soft underbelly a little more.

A link from Counterpunch proved interesting. Pitts and CMPI vice-president Robert Goldberg both worked for the FDA, as have other members of CMPI.

Counterpunch writer Evelyn Pringle, writing about the FDA and the scandal around Avandia’s potential for elevating the risk of heart attacks and death from cardiovascular episodes, discussed the attempts to discredit the Cleveland Clinic and its researcher who published the Avandia findings, Dr. Steven Nissen.

Pitts defended FDA spokesman Douglas Arbesfeld in June 2007, a month after Arbesfeld attempted to discredit Nissen and the Avandia study with the media. Arbesfeld was disciplined by the FDA for his actions under the role of FDA spokesperson.

Pringle called CMPI “a whole nest of ex-(pharmaceutical industry) moles who served the industry in one capacity or another in the Bush Administration’s FDA.” One current CMPI advisor, Daniel Troy, a former chief counsel for the FDA, helped get preemption in place for the drug companies.

“This “assertion of preemption” says that, as long as the FDA has approved a drug and its label, private citizens in state courts cannot sue the drug company for failing to warn about a product’s serious health risks, even in cases where it can be shown that the company concealed studies that revealed the risk from the public and the FDA,” wrote Pringle.

Now, we have our issues with Google, especially on the topic of privacy, the purchase of DoubleClick, and the potential for one company to be able to tap information on roughly 85 percent of the Internet-using public. We’re curious about CMPI’s motives in doing this study.

The issues CMPI raises regarding search results have been the kinds of topics Google continually tweaks its algorithm to rank appropriately. Our searches for Crestor and Avandia found links to side effects, warning/recalls, and other relevant topics atop the search results, but under the AdWords box which had a lawyer ad for Avandia and a third-party cholesterol remedy ad for Crestor.

While the safe option would be to say “ask a doctor for advice,” we have to note a couple of instances where Google’s search proved successful in helping someone with a medical condition when conventional approaches, including doctor’s visits, did not.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams suffered from a strange affliction that seemed to tie a throat affliction to a hand affliction. Through Google, Adams discovered a rare neurological condition called a spasmodic dysphonia that matched his symptoms.

A specialist confirmed what Google revealed to Adams, who was treated successfully. One has to give Google credit for pulling together the details Adams needed, when he needed them.

Similar cases have been noted elsewhere. Google isn’t an MD, and certainly isn’t perfect when it comes to clinical diagnoses. But throwing a blanket of mistrust over it for healthcare searches isn’t an appropriate course of action either.