Alternative therapy websites 'need regulation'
Saturday April 17, 2004
(Source: NPI Center)
Cancer charities and organisations need to devise a seal of approval system to endorse websites that promote alternative cancer therapies, researchers have suggested.
A new survey of unregulated websites offering information on complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) found that the quality of advice online varied greatly.
A team from the Peninsula Medical School (PMS), a partnership between the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth and the NHS within Devon and Cornwall, conducted a study of 32 websites, the results of which were published in the April issue of the Annals of Oncology.
While most sites provided reliable and valuable information, many suggested unproven therapies and some were even deemed dangerous as they offered misleading counsel.
The research, headed by Professor Edzard Ernst, the chair of complementary medicine at the PMS, found that two websites in particular were of excellent quality.
These were Quackwatch, a 30-year-old American non-profit organsisation formed to fight medical fraud, and Bandolier, an independent journal on evidence-based healthcare written by Oxford scientists.
Of the sites that could harm patients with misleading information, three fell foul of the team's standards by outwardly discouraging readers from using conventional cancer treatment.
Prof Ernst said: "These websites promoted and discussed CAM treatments for which no compelling safety and efficacy data exist. Generally speaking, the 'cancer cures' discussed on these websites are not supported by good scientific evidence. Other sites are outright dangerous as they advise patients against using conventional therapies."
He acknowledged that accessing information on the internet can empower patients but said that public awareness about the usefulness of such advice needed to be raised.
Cancer charities agreed with the researchers' conclusions.
The head of clinical programmes for Cancer Research UK, Dr Richard Sullivan, said: "More and more cancer patients are using CAM in parallel with their conventional treatments. There are some good websites to guide patients through CAM, but too many are either poor quality or frankly misleading.
"There is a real need to provide good quality information to patients and doctors about the potential and pitfalls of CAM in all its myriad forms."
The Macmillan Cancer Relief chief executive, Peter Cardy, said: "Complementary therapies have become a significant feature of healthcare practice in the UK and there is a need for good quality information on the internet. As part of Macmillan's service to patients, carers and professionals we already examine bonafide websites for cancer patients and check the quality of their information.
He added: "Evidence suggests that many people find that complementary therapies help them cope with the experience of cancer when used alongside conventional treatments. Patients report reduced anxiety, less depression, and an improved sense of well being.
"Macmillan recommends that people with cancer should discuss the use of complementary therapy with their doctor or nurse before embarking on any treatment and should reject any advice from a website that recommends abandoning conventional treatment in favour of alternative cures."