The Impact of Medical Misinformation
The Impact of Medical Misinformation
September 8, 2022 by eMedEvents

Over the course of the past two decades, social media has become one of the most popular ways for internet users to locate and share health information. This presents a unique opportunity to healthcare professionals and organizations where they can broaden their reach when it comes to improving healthcare literacy, self-efficacy, and treatment compliance among patients; therefore, many solo practitioners and institutions alike have incorporated social media into their daily businesses as a means of disseminating medical information regarding topics such as healthy habits and disease prevention.

However, the sheer accessibility of social media has also opened the door for previously-unimaginable social and health issues. While there is a definite value to using these platforms to promote accurate healthcare information, new research suggests that false or misleading information can spread as quickly—if not quicker—than facts. Now, more than ever, healthcare professionals are facing the far-reaching effects of medical misinformation that can, at worst, actively hinder treatment compliance and patient outcomes.

In an effort to combat widespread medical misinformation, it is crucial to know how it spreads and the ways in which it can impact a patient’s behavior and decision-making process. The textbook definition of “medical misinformation” has become increasingly muddied over the years due to the dynamic nature of social media and the wide range of healthcare topics. For the purposes of this article, “medical misinformation” is used as an umbrella term that encompasses any healthcare-related remark or comment that is inaccurate, misleading, not based on any empirical evidence, or has already been debunked by one or more scientific research studies.

One of the many far-reaching consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the widespread dissemination of medical misinformation online, with social media platforms being a major source. It calls to attention the overwhelming need for physician-patient communications that are accurate and substantial, with information presented to the patient in a manner they can easily understand.

 

Has medical misinformation increased in recent years?

Yes. While it has circulated online prior to COVID-19, the pandemic created an unprecedented breeding ground for medical misinformation. This phenomenon has only been exacerbated by pop culture’s pervasive influence on social media and other websites. Celebrities can have a major impact on our perception of healthcare issues; it is a trend that began in the 1990s and has snowballed due to the pandemic.

 

What is the most common misinformation right now?

This is an important question to ask, particularly in the interest of preventing revisionism when it comes to the early days of COVID-19. Even now, there is widespread confusion regarding what is misinformation and what is fact.

Currently, common COVID-19 misinformation comes in the following forms:

  • “COVID-19 is a hoax.”
  • “COVID-19 arose due to exposure to 5G technology.”
  • “The vaccines don’t work.”
  • “The vaccines are deadlier than the virus.”
  • “The vaccines cause infertility.”

These are only a few examples. However, these false narratives have caused real harm to an untold number of people around the world. How did it get to this point? Prior to COVID-19, medical misinformation had not been taken nearly as seriously as it should have been; rather than actively combating outlandish, pseudoscientific claims, many simply brushed them off—and therefore left them uncontested.

 

How can misinformation be countered?

Most instances of misinformation do not actually stem from a conscious desire to mislead others; rather, they occur most often in the wake of strong convictions—which can be social or political—that do not always align with scientific fact. Whether consciously or unconsciously, misinformation arises when an individual tries to twist facts to match their own personal agendas.

For example, those who do not like wearing masks may point out that, in the early days of the pandemic, public health specialists were not certain of the efficacy of mask-wearing; they might regurgitate this information regardless of the fact that more definitive research has been conducted on the subject since then.

It does not necessarily matter if misinformation comes from good or ill intentions; the harm it causes is the same, and it can be exceptionally difficult to mitigate because it is rooted in strong personal beliefs that are not beholden to what science has determined to be true.

 

What can healthcare professionals do?

Healthcare professionals are essential in the fight against medical misinformation due to their education and professional experiences. It is crucial for all healthcare professionals—not just physicians or nurses—to actively engage with their patients and their communities when it comes to disseminating accurate healthcare knowledge. While it can be frustrating at times, healthcare professionals must call out medical misinformation whenever they encounter it, especially on social media where conversations extend to an untold number of silent watchers that go beyond the active participants. It is not possible to change everyone’s mind; while the individual being engaged may remain firm in their misguided conceptions, someone following the thread may be effectively swayed.

 

Misinformation burnout is a common condition among medical and scientific professionals. Are there ways to deal with it?

Despite the widespread misinformation circulating the internet in the wake of COVID-19, the online science community has also flourished. There are numerous groups of medical researchers and healthcare professionals on social media who have dedicated a great deal of their time to fighting misinformation; as with any other type of burnout, support systems are key to both prevention and recovery.

Additionally, the importance of taking breaks from the internet—especially social media—cannot be understated. If you intend to engage with someone who is spreading misinformation, always step away for a few minutes to collect your thoughts and emotionally prepare yourself; after all, online disagreements can and do turn unpleasant. This also applies on a broader scale; if you are beginning to feel drained, spend a few days or a week away from social media and online interactions.

Taking breaks will not only improve your mental health, but they will also bolster your critical thinking skills by reinforcing an outside, offline perspective that is totally separate from internet culture.

 

Conclusion:

When encountering any information framed as factual online—especially on social media platforms—it is required that you ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this information anecdotal or based on aggregated, scientific data?
  • Is there readily-accessible evidence that supports this claim?
  • If so, does the evidence come from an impartial and unbiased source?

By taking the time to properly address these questions, you will be better equipped to identify and combat instances of medical misinformation.

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