Online medical misinformation is at an all-time high. While it’s one thing to self-diagnose after reading an article on WebMD, these kinds of conspiracy theories can prove much more harmful. With the recent viral video saying that masks and flu vaccines are part of a “Plandemic” to spread the coronavirus, and anti-vaxxers still stating that vaccines give babies autism, there is plenty of bad info that can confuse the average reader.
But there are people trying to do something about it.
“We take the spread of misinformation very seriously,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a 2016 press release. His statement came just after election week and was in response to the spread of political misinformation. However, the Association for Healthcare Social Media (AHSM) and several weary medical professionals are trying to stop the spread of medical misinformation online which, despite Zuckerberg’s assertions, continues to occur at an alarming rate.
Dangers of Medical Misinformation Online
“The first and most dangerous spread of misinformation is, of course, the misinformation about the dangers of vaccines on children’s health,” Dr. Lina Velikova, MD, Ph.D., of Disturb Me Not tells Parentology. With the resurgence of nearly eradicated, dangerous, and sometimes deadly diseases such as measles, mumps, and pertussis, Velikova’s beliefs are valid, and the cause behind them worth exploring.
“So many people are flooding the internet with their opinions and findings that are not based on scientific research,” she says. “The effects are truly worrisome — an increase in unvaccinated children endangers the whole population and some of the diseases that have been almost eradicated, now have a comeback.”
For instance, back in the late 1990s, after a third widespread vaccination attempt that reduced the number of measles cases to less than one case per one million individuals, the US officially declared measles eradicated. However, from January 1, 2019 to July 11, 2019, there have already been 1,123 individual cases of measles in 28 states, the greatest number of cases the US has seen since 1992. More alarmingly, that number surpasses the cumulative total for the past 25 years.
Though vaccinations are a hot topic today, anti-vax information is not the only misinformation medical professionals worry about. Kara Boelt, founder and president of EndPreeclampsia, is on a global mission to combat the spread of misinformation regarding preeclampsia, a potentially dangerous pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure.
The misconceptions surrounding this condition are many, and some can prove to be fatal. “One common misconception,” Boelt tells Parentology, “is that preeclampsia can be cured by dietary changes and/or lifestyle modifications. [However], certain supplements and diets can make women sicker, faster. [Moreover], preeclampsia occurs at the same rate globally where diets are vastly different, stress levels vary — think war-torn countries. Ultimately, what we know about the disorders is that they are caused by an immune conflict between DNA … And lifestyle changes do not change the genetic composition of the placenta.”
Other misinformation regarding the condition include assertions such as:
- “Bedrest will prevent or slow the progression of preeclampsia.” — It can cause harm by way of blood clots.
- “It requires high blood pressure to be diagnosed.” — Up to 5% of HELLP syndrome survivors do not have high blood pressure with their diagnosis.
- “It is not fatal.” — 76,000 women and 500,000 babies die every year from hypertensive disorders of pregnancy.
Boelt and her organization, which has a presence in over 100 countries and partners routinely with the University of Iowa, strives to combat this misinformation via online support, easy-to-understand diagnostic criteria and scientifically-backed research. “Through education [women] become stronger advocates for their own care,” Boelt says.
Other medical professionals, such as dentists, dieticians and even plastic surgeons, express concern for this rampant issue that is the spread of misinformation.
Meeting Patients Where They’re At
Austin Chiang, a gastroenterologist and president of AHSM, a nonprofit with a mission to educate doctors on proper social media etiquette, laments the fact that patients are getting their information from social media and Google — anywhere, it seems, except from 30-minute clinical visits with their doctors. To change that, he strives to meet the public where they’re at, and that’s on social media.
“If we aren’t engaged with online discussion, then the conversation is dominated by other people, and who knows where they’re getting their information from,” Chiang tells OneZero. “There are plenty of docs and nurses online these days, but relatively speaking, compared to the number of health professionals we have out there, it’s still a very small minority.”
David Gorski, a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute and managing editor of Science-Based Medicine, a popular medical blog, warns that countering misinformation is more complicated than “drowning it out.” In a recent Twitter thread, Gorski writes, “We frequently assume the answer to bad information is good information, in greater quantity than the bad information, but we’ve known for some time that this is not how human minds work.” He further goes on to stress that there just aren’t enough doctors and nurses who are interested enough—or good enough—to execute such a delicate strategy via social media.
Dr. Steve Silvestro, MD, pediatrician and host of popular podcast The Child Repair Guide, agrees. “Sometimes misinformation is spread because the nuance of medicine isn’t explained well enough,” Silvestro tells Parentology. “That, ultimately, has been the fault of many of us in medicine. We’ve long told patients and families what they have or what they should do without clearly explaining why. When we try to describe a ‘why,’ it’s often based in fear — the same tactic used by those who spread misinformation, making us perhaps no better in the end despite our intentions.
“Ultimately, we in medicine need to do a better job communicating online and on social media,” he continues. “We need to clearly describe what people truly need to worry about and what they don’t; to communicate what is healthy, what people need to watch out for, and how they can lead the best lives they want to lead.”
Of course, as OneZero points out, no individual doctor or group of advocates can fight this battle on their own. However, in a time when vaccine hesitancy is at an all-time high, when conspiracy theories are allowed to spread like wildfire and when faith in doctors is falling, each individual voice helps.
As Silvestro says, “There needs to be a balance between vigilance and anxiety, and there is: clear, warm, empathic education.”
Medical Misinformation Online — Sources
Disturb Me Not
OneZero: Doctors Are Braving Social Media to Battle Medical Misinformation
David Gorski, MD, PhD on Twitter
The Child Repair Guide with Dr. Steve Silvestro
CDC: U.S. measles cases in first five months of 2019 surpass total cases per year for past 25 years