30 Oct Jonathan Cartu Convey: Health care professionals battle misinformation ‘infodemic’…
October 30, 2020
6 min read
Health care professionals are flocking to social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, to make sure people understand the truth when it comes to their health.
Social media bots, search engine optimization and the spread of misinformation have made it more challenging than ever for people to find accurate and helpful information about their health, according to Jen Gunter, MD, an OB-GYN and pain medicine physician in San Francisco and author of The Vagina Bible. Gunter has more than 323,000 followers on Twitter.
“It’s very difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not,” Gunter told Healio. “When something looks very reputable and it’s all written in the same language, how does the consumer tell the difference?”
The problem of health misinformation has been amplified in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It led Eve D. Bloomgarden, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the division of endocrinology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and six other physician-parents in the Chicago area to form the Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team (IMPACT), a coalition of all-volunteer, physicians and health care professionals working to identify and meet the needs of Illinois health care workers and communities during the pandemic.
“There are good resources of information out there,” Bloomgarden told Healio. “It can be hard to know what to trust because the nature of science, especially science that is completely new, is always changing.”
Gunter has a large following on social media and Bloomgarden has helped physicians reach thousands of people through IMPACT, but health care providers do not need to have a big audience to make a difference. There are several ways providers can reach individuals on a smaller scale to help fight against misinformation.
How misinformation finds a home
Gunter said people gravitating to the internet for health information is a good thing, as it shows they care about their health and want to read more outside of an appointment with a provider.
“It’s good to learn more,” Gunter said. “Most people have limited time with their physician. You have 15 minutes, sometimes less, and they want to look more things up, they want to make sure what they were told was correct. Of course, people are scared and worried, and it’s 3 a.m. and their doctor’s appointment isn’t for 5 days, so what do they do? They go online and look.”
The internet is much like a library, Gunter said.
“People go to the library for information. When you walk into a library, there are books there that are not good, that are filled with bad information, and there’s some that are filled with correct information. With a traditional library, you have a librarian to curate things for you, and with the internet, there’s nobody curating quality. Many publications often want to write about what’s popular, so it all becomes just sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Gunter said one way misinformation is spread is through websites that appear to have informational health articles, but whose purpose is to promote a false medical conspiracy or sell a product. Providers should make sure individuals are aware of this and guide them away from these types of websites.
“People should never get information from a site that sells products, ever,” Gunter said. “If you’re on a site, and they also have a store, you can’t get information. Would you get your information about osteoporosis from the drug company? No. They might have good information, but it’s going to be biased to some degree.”
Conspiracy theories and medical misinformation also find their way onto social media, where ideas can quickly proliferate and be viewed by thousands of users because of sharing and re-tweeting. Gunter said some misinformation is not necessarily shared by real people, but instead by bots designed to intentionally spread misleading ideas.
“If you go back to looking at some of the books written in the 1990s, there’s definitely been medical conspiracy theories around forever,” Gunter said. “When the smallpox vaccine came out and they were going to have mass vaccination in England, there were all these anti-vaccination people. It’s been there forever. The difference with social media is that it has given it a voice to amplify.”
Those amplified voices have caused plenty of frustration for providers, especially with the advent of COVID-19. In response, some health care professionals are beginning to fight back.
COVID-19, fake health news and IMPACT
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