Many Mental-Illness Websites Show Drug-Company Bias, Study Finds

Article excerpt

Although mental-health-related websites are generally biased in favor of a biological explanation of mental illness and drug treatments, those owned or funded by pharmaceutical companies tend to be more biased than others and, thus, "cannot be considered an objective source of mental health information for the public or practitioners," according to a study published this month in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.

"The pervasive international influence of the pharmaceutical industry in all aspects of mental health policy, practice and research now clearly extends to the internet," the study concludes.

This finding has important significance for health consumers, including those who rely on information recommended to them by their physicians. For, as the study points out, the "recommendation of websites by health professionals has become standard practice and the industry, therefore, actively works to get them to recommend websites favorable to drug sales."

A 2010 survey of Australian general practitioners found, for example, that 71 percent had been offered "enticements" by drug companies to recommend specific industry-sponsored websites to their patients, and some 62 percent of the practitioners had done so.

A bias toward medication

Led by clinical psychologist John Read of the University of Auckland, the new study began with a literature review of all previous studies from around the world that investigated the role of drug companies in mental-health-related websites. They found nine such studies -- a "disappointingly small number," notes Read, given the power of the Internet to shape public opinion on health matters.

Read is up front about the fact that he was a co-author of six of those studies. "Readers are therefore encouraged to examine and judge the evidence by accessing the six papers" themselves, he writes.

Some 42 percent of the websites investigated in the nine studies were either owned or openly funded by drug companies. Read then conducted a meta-analysis of the content of both those and the non- drug-company-connected sites. He found that the sites funded by a drug company were significantly more likely to promote a biological view of a mental-health problem and to emphasize drug treatments over talk therapy and other psychosocial interventions. …