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Do not become a victim of medical misinformation

One of the main sources of medical misinformation and disinformation is social media

Medical misinformation and disinformation are rampant in today's society, fuelled in part by the proliferation of social media and the internet.

This type of “pseudo-knowledge” can be extremely dangerous, as it can lead to the spread of false education that can impact people's health and wellbeing.

Misinformation is defined as information that is false or inaccurate, but is spread unintentionally.

Disinformation, on the other hand, is information that is intentionally misleading or false, with the goal of spreading propaganda or promoting a particular agenda.

One of the main sources of medical misinformation and disinformation is social media. With the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, it has become easier than ever for false information to spread quickly and widely. This is particularly true in the medical field, where people are often looking for answers to their health concerns.

Some of the most common types of medical misinformation and disinformation include conspiracy theories, false claims about the safety and efficacy of certain treatments or medications, and misleading information about the causes and prevention of diseases. The Covid-19 pandemic is a prime example!

One example of medical disinformation that has gained traction in recent years is the misconception that measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause autism, a concept popularised by a 1998 study published in The Lancet medical journal. The link was immediately disproved by the scientific community and eventually the publication itself was retracted, with the lead author prohibited from practising medicine.

However, despite that, the damage was great, and the United States and Europe saw multiple measles outbreaks!

Another example is the promotion of alternative or complementary medicine as a replacement for conventional Western medicine. While there may be some modest benefits to these types of treatments, they are often promoted as a cure-all without any scientific evidence to support their claims. This can lead people to delay or avoid seeking conventional medical treatment, which can be dangerous or even life-threatening.

Even smart persons can fall into this trap as was the case with Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder, who was diagnosed with a highly curable form of a neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer. He decided to delay surgery and medical treatment for a year, during which he tried alternative treatments such as acupuncture, a vegan diet, herbs and cleansing juices. By the time he finally had surgery, the cancer had spread to his liver. Mr Jobs later told his biographer that he regretted the decision to delay medical treatment.

How can this problem be addressed?

To combat this problem, it is important for individuals to be critical consumers of information, and to seek out reliable sources for medical data. Healthcare professionals, policymakers, and social media companies also have a role to play in addressing this issue, by promoting education and combating false information when it arises.

1. Education

Scientific evidence suggests that critical thinking is a teachable skill, and new resources to teach e-health literacy are becoming increasingly available. By educating individuals about how to evaluate sources of information and discern reliable from unreliable ones, we can empower people to make informed decisions about their health.

2. Emphasising source quality

Although there is evidence that trustworthiness is more influential than expertise when approaching misinformation, expertise is still a key requirement when evaluating authenticity. If an individual finds the source credible, he/she is more likely to believe that the information is true. Because of this, people with medical credentials who fuel unfounded fears are among the most dangerous for spreading misinformation. Similarly, those who claim to be experts by either fabricating a degree or attending a short course to try to master multiple years’ knowledge, can be particularly impactful when spreading misinformation. Developing online systems by governmental credentialling bodies and teaching institutions would allow for easy checks of earned credentials.

3. Fact-checking and repeated corrections

By having trusted organisations and experts fact-check information and correct dated data or false claims, we can promote accuracy and reliability in the ehealth sphere.

4. Regulation

There should be regulations in place to ensure that medical information being disseminated is accurate and reliable, as well as regulations that require the disclosure of conflicts of interest.

5. Social Media Policies

Social media policies that prioritise accuracy and reliability are essential. Platforms can develop policies that ensure that false information is flagged, removed, or down-ranked, while also promoting accurate and reliable information.

So how can I evaluate health information on the internet?

Asking a few questions will help one decide if you can trust a website or a social media post.

1. Who runs the website or post? In general, you'll find good health information on websites run by federal government agencies, universities, and large professional organisations. For example, the American College of Cardiology (a professional organisation) and the American Heart Association (a non-profit) and are both reliable sources of information on cardiac health.

2. What's the purpose of the site or post? Is it to inform the public? Sell products or services? Promote the opinions of a person or group?

3. Who pays for it?

4. If reviewing a medical study, always ask who funded the research?

At the end, and after you evaluate health information, always talk with your provider before applying it to your own health.

Joseph Yammine is a consultant cardiologist at the Bermuda Hospitals Board. The information herein is not intended as medical advice nor as a substitute for professional medical opinion. Always seek the advice of your physician

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Published March 07, 2023 at 7:50 am (Updated March 07, 2023 at 7:50 am)

Do not become a victim of medical misinformation

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