A Practical Guide to Identifying Medical Misinformation
By Dr. Heather Stahura, MD, FACC, John Bulmer, and Alexa Nero, PharmD Candidate 2023
Social media has greatly impacted society by increasing connectivity, making it easier for people to connect and communicate, regardless of geographical distance. Social media platforms have also increased access to information with the ability to quickly spread news and ideas to a large audience. It is the first time in human history that so much information and data is available to so many. It’s almost impossible to discern what is true. This especially applies to medical and health information.
Health misinformation is one of the most threatening challenges to global health. In recent years, the popularity of health misinformation on the internet has increased. This can lead to potentially harmful interventions and a delay in proper care. According to the World Health Organization, false information is 70% more likely to get shared than accurate news on social media platforms.
“Social media is a mixed blessing with the ability to provide any information instantaneously, regardless of veracity, in a compelling and shareable way. In today’s world, we have unlimited information at our fingertips which has connected people like never before. It also can serve to spread fear about topics related to health and science. I find that medical misinformation is one of the most damaging things to come out of the pandemic.” says Capital Cardiology’s Dr. Heather Stahura, who witnesses the impacts of medical misinformation on a daily basis in her interactions with patients.
Social media can propagate misinformation and disinformation through several mechanisms:
Algorithmic amplification: Social media algorithms tend to prioritize content that generates engagement, such as likes, shares, and comments. This can result in false information being amplified and appearing more widely than accurate information.
Filter bubbles: Social media algorithms often create filter bubbles that limit users’ exposure to information and perspectives that challenge their beliefs. This can result in users being trapped in echo chambers where they are only exposed to information that confirms their existing beliefs, including misinformation.
Viral hoaxes and memes: False information can spread rapidly on social media in the form of viral hoaxes, memes, and conspiracy theories. These are often designed to be emotionally compelling and shareable, which increases their chances of going viral.
Anonymous and fake accounts: Social media platforms are often used by anonymous or fake accounts to spread disinformation, manipulate public opinion, and interfere in elections. These accounts can be controlled by individuals, groups, or even state-sponsored actors.
Limited fact-checking: Despite efforts by social media companies to improve the accuracy of the information on their platforms, misinformation and disinformation can still spread widely before being fact-checked and removed.
The above examples can contribute to the spread of false information on social media, making it a powerful tool for propaganda and manipulation.
“Two recurring topics that have been amplified by social media are that statins are harmful and negativity regarding the Covid vaccine. Both of these have been life-saving for some of our patients but yes, could potentially have some rare side effects. Each patient should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis under careful discussion with their physician.” says Dr. Stahura
How can someone tell the difference between reliable versus misleading information on the internet?
Unfortunately, spotting misinformation is not always easy. The first way to identify information is by assessing if the websites are verified. Some general tips for looking through these websites include investigating the author/creator’s credentials. Are they healthcare professionals? What kind? Does their qualification (i.e degree) align with the topic of content they are creating? If they don’t, misinformation is a possibility.
Questions to keep in mind.
Can anybody post on the sites? If so, it may not be credible. Examples of open-sourced websites include Twitter, Wikipedia, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, TikTok, and Answers.com. However – many qualified healthcare professionals also post on these websites to combat misinformation. This further complicates these platforms, as some information may be credible, while some is not.
Is the author/creator making bold claims you have not read anywhere else? This may also be a red flag. Is the ultimate purpose of the article to sell a product? Does the information they are putting out directly make them a profit? When was the content created? Information can go out of date rather quickly. Unreliable websites will often make claims and not include their sources of information. If you scroll to the bottom of the page, are there sources included? If not, suspect possible misinformation. Lastly, always double-check any information with your provider or pharmacist, especially if it involves medications.
Unfortunately, spotting misinformation is not always easy. Dr. Stahura has some practical recommendations for anyone researching medical options online:
“We see it all too often, individuals claiming your food and medications are toxic. When you see health information online, especially content that evokes a strong emotional response, please remember to ask yourself some questions:
- Does the author or source make claims about a topic that they have no relevant expertise in? Look at their education, work experience, and credentials.
- Do they make statements that contradict scientific or medical organizations or experts?
- Are they promoting a cure, diet, or treatment that sounds too easy or good to be true, such as a “miracle” cure? Proceed with caution if their product is what they want you to purchase.
- Do they make all-or-nothing statements about health and wellness? Especially regarding the safety of products or medications?
- Are they quoting a single study or paper to support their claim? If you search hard enough, you can find a “study” to support any conclusion or opinion. Unfortunately, bad research exists. Most physicians look at multiple studies from peer-reviewed journals.”
Misinformation often makes the physician’s job harder. Once a patient becomes biased against a certain medication or procedure, without hearing all of the positives or the negatives from a healthcare professional, it’s very hard to change their perception. Especially if this information was shared with them by a friend or family member whom they trust. That share is often viewed as a personal endorsement.
“As a doctor, it’s difficult to see patients make the wrong decision when you know it could help them or potentially save their life,” says Dr. Stahura
As mentioned previously there are endless unreliable platforms on the internet, but there are also plenty of trustworthy sites. The National Institutes of Health (nih.gov) has a health information page where you can search topics of interest and find information written by qualified healthcare professionals. Another way to find health information is through medical or healthcare organization websites, hospital websites, or academic medical institutions. Examples of these sources include the American Medical Association, American College of Cardiology, Mayo Clinic, and Cleveland Clinic. Another trustworthy resource is MedlinePlus.gov, which is often easier for patients to find the information they need. If you are looking to learn more about a medication that was prescribed to you or a loved one, pharmaceutical companies that make the medication often have dedicated websites for patients. These websites may explain how the medication can help you, how to take it, and possible side effects.
Searching the internet for reliable health information can be difficult for patients. The amount of misinformation on the internet will only continue to increase. Using these strategies may help you and your loved ones find the information you need. Remember, always ask your local trusted healthcare provider or pharmacist if you are unsure of information on the internet.
Your healthcare team is always here to answer any questions relating to your health and wellness.
For an unbiased look at the science behind medical misinformation, The Unbiased Science Podcast is one of Dr. Stahura’s favorites. You can listen here: https://www.unbiasedscipod.com/