The spread of medical misinformation is an age-old problem with devastating consequences in the digital age.
In the pandemic era, nearly three out of four Americans have been exposed to medical or health-related misinformation, and of those exposed, nearly half are unable to discriminate between true health information and misinformation, according to new research from GoodRx. The research further identifies social media as the top source of misinformation – a reality that was underscored recently when Twitter recently rolled back its COVID-19 misinformation policy.
How can healthcare providers fight the spread of misinformation? Part of the solution is fighting fire with fire: using digital, including social media, to identify when medical disinformation is spreading and then combat it.
The State of Medical Misinformation and Disinformation
The U.S. Surgeon General defines misinformation as information that is false, inaccurate, or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time. Misinformation becomes disinformation when it is used to serve a malicious purpose, such as to trick people into believing something for financial gain or political advantage.
Medical disinformation is an American tradition. The well-known phrase “snake oil salesman,” which refers to the sale of fake remedies to cure medical ailments, dates back to the 19th Century American West. At the turn of the 20th Century, heroin-laced aspirin was believed to be an effective treatment for children suffering from sore throats, coughs, and colds.
We’ve come a long way since then – for the worse. Over the past decade, social media has made it possible for misinformation to spread more rapidly than ever. The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic saw misinformation running the gamut from the treatment of the virus to the efficacy and side effects of authorized vaccines. Unfortunately, Americans have been exposed widely to various falsehoods concerning the vaccines.
Even healthcare professionals have participated in the spread of disinformation about vaccines and the virus, which has compelled the American Medical Association to adopt a policy addressing health-related disinformation spread by health professionals.
Americans continue to pay a horrible price. As the U.S. Surgeon General points out, during the pandemic, health misinformation led people to decline vaccines, reject public health measures, and use unproven (and often dangerous) treatments. Health misinformation also led to harassment and violence against health workers and other frontline workers tasked with communicating evolving public health measures.
In addition, misinformation creates one more distraction for medical workers as they respond to patients’ concerns and questions fueled by faulty information they found on the internet.
The problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Even when social media platforms try to moderate medical disinformation – and let’s face it, we continue to see evidence that they are not doing so – they are playing a constant cat-and-mouse game with parties who spread misinformation.
Algorithms that reward engagement on social media continue to help medical disinformation go viral. We’ve seen the phenomenon continue even as the pandemic has waned in recent months. For example, a recent wave of misinformation surrounded the drug Ozempic, which is intended to treat Type 2 diabetes. A false rumor that Ozempic can assist in weight loss circulated on social media, causing market shortages for Type 2 diabetes patients who need it for more serious health purposes.
What Can Providers Do?
For medical providers seeking solutions to combat the problem, facing the limitations of the individual is an important factor. The reality is that while no singular individual will completely stop the spread of misinformation, a measurable impact is possible. Closely monitoring healthcare trends and ensuring accuracy in self-published content are low-investment actions that all medical providers can take immediately.
First, medical providers can use social media monitoring tools and online reputation management software to detect misinformation as it spreads. No single human or even a team can monitor all misinformation. But a social listening tool or even an online reputation management company can help by using artificial intelligence to spot misinformation as it bubbles up to the surface. Additionally, these tools often spotlight posts going viral among specific communities and offer providers the opportunity to report these to the platforms for review and possible removal.
Second, providers can drown out false information by developing, publishing, and sharing accurate, compelling health information content with the communities they serve. Several health systems are known for sharing high-quality health education content. For instance:
- The Mayo Clinic, like many providers, devotes a section of its website to answering commonly asked questions about COVID-19 and vaccines. The posts are written in a friendly, accessible style designed to dispel misinformation by providing good-quality information.
- The Cleveland Clinic on Twitter is a constant source of useful, accurate tips on healthy living. The Cleveland Clinic does not explicitly attack misinformation. Trying to call out harmful tweets and responding to them would be a full-time job, and a futile one. Instead, the Cleveland Clinic, like the Mayo Clinic, reinforces accurate information with its posts.
Every healthcare consumer deserves access to safe, reliable healthcare – and that includes health education. By addressing the social media misinformation crisis head-on, providers can help support consumers along the entire patient journey, from awareness to care access.
Annie Hafner Haarmann
Annie Hafner Haarmann is Head of Consumer and Patient Experience Strategy, North America at Reputation where she counsels leading national healthcare brands such as Advocate Health Care, Intermountain Health, Sutter Health and many more.