Not So “Independent”: WebMD’s Ties to Big Pharma

woman at computer

The popular health web site WebMD came under fire recently when it was discovered that their free, online screening for depression was rigged. No matter what answers participants in the self-diagnostic test chose, the end result was always the same: “You may be at risk for serious depression.”

It turns out the test was sponsored by the drug company Eli Lilly, which makes the popular anti-depressant Cymbalta. This came to the attention of Iowa senator Charles Grassley, who demanded that the link between the website and the drug company be investigated. As a result, WebMD changed the test—slightly. Now if you indicate that you have none of the symptoms of depression, the quiz tells you that you have a “lower risk.”

And, according to Martha Rosenberg at, the story doesn’t end there:

Lilly is not the only pharma company receiving unmarked product placement on WebMD. Last summer, a video featured a woman patient confessing she was fearful of life while a voice over said she needed treatment for "general anxiety disorder" and the camera showed bottles of Forest Pharmaceuticals' antidepressant Lexapro moving down the manufacturer's assembly line. Get it? No disclaimer on the video or "sponsored content" appeared. Another unsponsored WebMD video last summer urged people on antidepressants to remain on their therapy "despite side effects" and a third suggested women concerned about cancer, heart attack and stroke risks of postmenopausal hormone therapy should continue their treatment at lowered doses.

The WebMD empire includes four of the top ten most visited health sites on the internet, including, and MedicineNet. One of these subsidiaries, Medscape, administers training courses for medical professionals (like your doctor) that, of course, turn out to be marketing events for drug companies.

Dr. Mercola, who published an article on the same subject summed the problem up as such:

WebMD is a marvelous example of the brilliant marketing the drug companies are doing. They seek to provide you with the illusion of an independent objective third party that just so happens to confirm their solution is the best choice for your health issues. But when you draw back the curtains you will find it is the drug companies themselves that are crafting the message and not an independent entity.

For more information, check out the rest of Dr. Mercola's article.