At the American Academy of Family Physicians conference held in Atlanta earlier this month, Robert Bonakdar, MD, of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in LaJolla, Calif., presented a study on alternative medicine looking at herbal cancer cures on the Web. His results were shocking: Using seven popular search engines, he got 11,730 to 58,605 hits from each search engine using the words "cancer" and "herb." Using master search engines, he whittled that down to 61 sites, 27 of which were noncommercial and 34 of which were commercial. Of the commercial sites, six were outside the United States; the rest were based in this country.

Among the commercial sites, he found that 92 percent said their product prevented cancer; 89 percent said they treated cancer, and 58 percent promised to cure cancer. "All of them are breaking the law," Bonakdar said.

International commercial sites as a class were the worst; all claimed to cure cancer. One Canadian site (www.holisticcenter.ab.ca) claims: "Here at the Holistic Herb Health Center, we specialize in curing cancer naturally without negative side effects... Our programs kill the cancer and not just treat it until one dies."

By comparison, the "vast majority" of noncommercial sites, run by nonprofit groups or government agencies, "were reasonable," Bonakdar said. They didn't promise to cure, treat or prevent cancer and provided research to support their claims.

The bottom line for CME providers: Physicians not only need to learn what their patients are seeing on the Internet, but to counsel them against the inflated claims made by some of these sites. Operators of on-line CME sites should be wary of links to such sites.