Amy Ridenour

Can trial lawyer advertising put your health at risk?

You wouldn't think so, but a new report by the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest explains how it can happen.

It seems that trial lawyer advertising -- advertising that too often is misleadingly scary -- increasingly is dominating search engine results about the side effects of prescription drugs.

The report, "Insta-Americans: The Empowered (and Imperiled) Health Care Consumer in the Age of Internet Medicine," by Robert Goldberg, Ph.D., Peter Pitts and Caroline Patton, MA, says that eight million Americans search online for health information each day, and when they search online for prescription drug information, the results they get could scare them to death.

Only rarely are health care consumers searching for lawyers, but lawyers are searching for them.

CMPI surveyed the first thirty Google search results for Crestor, a drug treatment for cholesterol and atherosclerosis, and Avandia, a type-2 diabetes drug. "With few exceptions," says co-author Peter Pitts, "the information we found appeared legitimate but had no medical authority whatsoever. In many cases, we found lawyers posing as medical experts."

Pitts adds: "The analysis of search results revealed that online real estate was dominated by Web sites paid for and sponsored by either class action law firms or legal marketing sites searching for plaintiff referrals. Other sites were sponsored by groups or individuals selling 'alternatives.'"

CMPI says public fears about the side effects of antidepressants in teens may have played a role in an increase in youth suicides.

Medical science doesn't yet know what causes autism, but you can't tell that from some trial lawyer websites, which encourage parents of autistic children to call for free "vaccine injury consultations" or claim outright that "the brains of children who have autism have been injured by lead paint, other environmental toxins, medical negligence, and/or other insults."

"Do you want to know what caused your child's autism? For a free consultation about autism and birth injuries with an experienced lawyer...," trumpets a website for a New York law firm.

Some of this hyperbole is medically harmless -- although frivolous lawsuits against doctors raise health care costs and have caused shortages of medical services in some areas -- but exaggerating the link between vaccinations and autism can make parents more afraid of vaccines than the diseases the vaccines prevent, with potentially dangerous consequences.