In trying to figure out how unproven stem cell clinics get so many customers, I’ve found that these firms can in part thank Google.
I recently wrote a guest piece on STAT News about this problem and called on Google to fix it.
However, just this week I stumbled on another case of Google search results benefiting clinics and in my view putting patients at risk that is so bad I had to write about it.
Searching for search logic
Why would Google help such firms reach more customers by ranking them so highly in their search results?
There’s not much logic to how Google is doing things here as its mission is about supplying the best, authoritative information. Yet these clinic businesses are selling scientifically and medically unproven injections. The stem cell shots are also often risky and very expensive. In my opinion, as a stem cell biologist, the content on most clinic websites is not authoritative and trustworthy.
I don’t think Google is intending to help these firms. Even so, the search engine giant’s algorithms often just don’t work well in the health space and can be gamed.
This situation needs fixing quickly.
You may have heard that stem cell clinics can no longer advertise on Google.
However, somehow the clinics often seem to control what people find when they search for stem cell info on the search engine. It’s akin to another form of advertising.
Stem cell clinics still have Google’s number
Earlier I wrote here on The Niche about how one particular (seemingly fairly obscure to me) Caribbean stem clinic called DVC Stem is doing extremely well globally on Google.
DVC stem cell pops up #1 or near the top on a whole bunch of Google search results about stem cells.
In fact, DVC is apparently so good at the Google search game that it often ranks above pages from what I would say are the true authorities.
Other clinics rank puzzlingly well too.
What’s the new case I found that sparked concern and this post?
Best info on stem cell therapy side effects per Google doesn’t cut it
People interested in stem cell therapies often search on Google for similar types of information. The importance of Internet searching for patients taking next steps to consider actually getting stem cells is highlighted by a recent paper from a team led by Shane Shapiro and Zubin Master (see especially their Table 3).
One common and very important search relates to stem cell therapy side effects.
People considering getting stem cells need rock-solid info on risks and possible side effects, and that info should be provided by those without conflicts of interest.
Yet Google search results in this area are puzzling and in my view, they put the public at risk.
For instance, the DVC Stem cell clinic now ranks near the top for Google searches on stem cell side effects. I would think that the NIH, the FDA, the Mayo Clinic, and places like the University of Washington would be the authorities on stem cell therapy side effects. However, Google likes DVC Stem better and I believe that tells us something about how the search engine is in a sense malfunctioning in the healthcare space.
See the screenshot above from an anonymized Google search for stem cell side effects.
Stem cells portrayed by clinics as safer than we can be sure
Remarkably, the DVC clinic page on side effects that is ranked so highly by Google begins in this oversimplified way:
“Yes, stem cell therapy is safe.”
Remember these folks are selling unproven stem cell therapies so maybe from that business perspective stem cell therapy should be portrayed simply as safe?
Then they say that their clinic has never had long-term adverse events. I don’t see publications from this group on their stem cell offerings and data on side effects.
Also, this clinic says that the cells in their therapy cannot be rejected. That seems like a dubious claim to me as a stem cell biologist as the cells are coming from another person. While some stem cells have a lower propensity to trigger an immune response in a recipient, that’s not always going to be the case.
The side effects webpage gives only a few specifics such as this:
Common short-term side effects immediately following the cell transplant have been fatigue, headache, and nausea. These effects typically subside between 1-2 hours.
That’s just about it.
The rest of the page seems to me to be full of material about stem cells unrelated to side effects.
With all of this in mind, according to Google this is still one of the best and most authoritative sources in the world about stem cell therapy side effects?
Another clinic ranking highly, another puzzle
Moving on, another unproven stem cell clinic, this one in Minnesota, consistently ranks very highly too. On Google, it is above the Mayo Clinic, the UW, and many other authorities for this same search on stem cell side effects.
The Minnesota clinic’s side effects page that Google search likes so much has just a few sentences on stem cell side effects and the text is generic in my view. There are no resources.
And, of course, the page promotes the “treatments” they are selling.
Per Google, this is another top global authority in this space. Exactly how?
More broadly clinics selling stem cell injections have a conflict of interest on this topic. For this reason, I’d imagine that they tend toward downplaying possible side effects so as not to worry potential customers.
Google should be smart enough to figure that out.
Call to action
As I’ve said before, Google needs to change its search engine optimization and ranking system in the healthcare space. It needs to take into account when a website is marketing unproven stem cell shots and other unproven regenerative therapies.
More broadly, they should adjust their rankings for all healthcare-related searches in the same way. Beyond stem cells, I’ve found many other examples of websites selling unproven medical care but killing it on Google search.
What happens next?
Unfortunately, it’s possible Google won’t make any changes at all, or at least not without more pressure about how risky the status quo is.
Let’s keep advocating with Google to take prompt action to fix this situation.