We at BCCTBeyond Conventional Cancer Therapies (predecessor website to CancerChoices)/CancerChoices recently read an article published on the People’s Pharmacy website titled “Is Google censoring drug side effect information?” We respect the work and information that the People’s Pharmacy provides, so we took note of the concerns expressed in the article. 

The gist of it is that Google has changed its algorithm for searches, which in turn changes the way Google ranks websites. “Many health sites have seen a dramatic drop in traffic. The People’s Pharmacy is one of them. Over the last month our traffic is down over 50% thanks to Google’s 2019 Core Update.”1Graedon J. Is Google censoring drug side effect information? The People’s Pharmacy. Viewed October 8, 2018. Apparently another website, MedShadow, which helps people understand the risks and benefits of medicines, has also seen its web traffic plummet since the Google search algorithm has changed.

From what we understand, Google changed its algorithm in order to suppress sites that didn’t seem credible—sites that sold miracle cures and get-rich-quick schemes. MedShadow sees that their site became part of the fall-out. Perhaps a faulty algorithm. The People’s Pharmacy goes further to question whether or not Google is intentionally suppressing drug side effect information.

Subsequent to the People’s Pharmacy article, we read a blog post by writer, speaker, and change agent John Weeks who was deeply concerned by trends he has been seeing and that have been reported to him. In his view, Google and Facebook appear to have “killed access to alternativein cancer care, alternative practices or therapies such as diets or acupuncture are used instead of conventional treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery, or radiotherapy; if a therapy is used with conventional treatments, it is considered complementary and not alternative and integrativein cancer care, a patient-centered approach combining the best of conventional care, self care and evidence-informed complementary care in an integrated plan medicine.” He shows a very sobering list of the percent decline in web traffic to such sites as Dr. Weil, GreenMed Info, and even LiveStrong, which all provide evidence-based information on integrative care and natural products. Visits to sites related to integrative and alternative medicine were down by 52% to 98%, while the Mayo Clinic and WebMD site traffic was up by about 60% and 30%, respectively.2Weeks J. Self-Interested Whims of the Oligarchs: Google and Facebook Kill Access to Alternative and Integrative Medicine. Integrator. September 18, 2019. Viewed October 8, 2019.

BCCTBeyond Conventional Cancer Therapies (predecessor website to CancerChoices)/CancerChoices is not going to weigh in on Google’s or Facebook’s intentions. I would say, however, that even before I read this article, I noticed a change in Google’s listing of websites that have information about drug side effects. 

At BCCTBeyond Conventional Cancer Therapies (predecessor website to CancerChoices)/CancerChoices, we regularly look up side effects and cautions on many therapies, including drugs. In the past, Google would list a nice smattering of websites with both patient and health professional information. Recently, however, I did a Google search for side effects of a particular drug and the first two pages of sites provided only very basic patient information and mostly encouraged the person to talk to their doctor or pharmacist. It wasn’t until I got to page three of the search that I found one article that provided more substantive information. I tried a new search asking for information for health care professionals on side effects of the drug. I essentially got the same listings on the first page. Finally, I did a search that most patients would not know to do and I asked for the PDR (Physician’s Desk Reference) information on this drug’s side effects—that did yield much more specific information.

This certainly changes the way I will search for information on drugs’ side effects on Google. I will also have to remember to look up certain specific reputable websites directly, now that I know they likely will not show up in a Google Search. We will do our best to find and pass on these valuable links and resources to you. We welcome suggestions of credible websites that provide evidence-based, non-commercial information about treatment side effects as well as about integrative medicine.

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About the Author

Laura Pole, MSN, RN, OCNS

Laura Pole is senior clinical consultant for CancerChoices. Laura is an oncology clinical nurse specialist who has been providing integrative oncology clinical care, navigation, consultation, and education services for over 40 years.

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Laura Pole is senior clinical consultant for CancerChoices. Laura is an oncology clinical nurse specialist who has been providing integrative oncology clinical care, navigation, consultation, and education services for over 40 years. She is the co-creator and co-coordinator of the Integrative Oncology Navigation Training at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC. Laura also manages the “Media Watch Cancer News That You Can Use” listserv for Smith Center/Commonweal. In her role as a palliative care educator and consultant, Laura has served as statewide Respecting Choices Faculty for the Virginia POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) Collaborative as well as provided statewide professional education on palliative and end-of-life care for the Virginia Association for Hospices and Palliative Care.

For CancerChoices, Laura curates content and research, networks with clinical and organizational partners, brings awareness and education of integrative oncology at professional and patient conferences and programs, and translates research into information relevant to the patient experience as well as clinical practice.

Laura sees her work with CancerChoices as a perfect alignment of all her passions, knowledge and skills in integrative oncology care. She is honored to serve you.

Laura Pole, MSN, RN, OCNS Senior Clinical Consultant