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Psychosomatics. 2003 Mar-Apr;44(2):100-3.

The internet for medical information about cancer: help or hindrance?

Author information

  • 1Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego, USA. scmatthews@ucsd.edu



The authors tested a strategy for screening Internet sites to identify those that provide scientifically accurate information regarding complementary/alternative medicine treatments commonly used by cancer patients.


Separate Internet searches were conducted for three complementary/alternative medicine treatments: floressence, amalaki, and selenium. Sites (N=194) were assessed according to four criteria: availability of online purchasing, inclusion of patient testimonials, description of the treatment as a "cancer cure," and description of the treatment as "having no side effects." The presence of any of these criteria was considered a "red flag" denoting questionable scientific accuracy of the site. Sites were categorized based on the number of red flags. MEDLINE searches were performed and peer-reviewed literature used to determine the scientific accuracy of sites.


Over 90% of the sites for floressence and amalaki had at least one red flag. In these searches, sites with no red flags provided some scientifically accurate information, while sites with red flags provided a large amount of vague and inaccurate information. Less than one-quarter of sites for selenium had at least one red flag, and sites in this search generally provided scientifically accurate information, regardless of the number of red flags.


There is a staggering amount of medical misinformation on the Internet. For cancer treatments that have not been rigorously studied, the red flag criteria offer a rapid way of screening Internet sites for likely scientific accuracy. It may be advisable for patients to avoid sites with one or more red flags.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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