How to Identify and Combat Medical Misinformation

Kenneth F. Casey, MD

Have you heard that white potatoes are bad for you? Or that going out in the cold without a jacket will make you sick? Medical misinformation and health myths have been around for centuries. Now, with the help of social media and content sharing on the internet, these myths travel at lightning speed to all corners of the world.

Harmful health misinformation can have serious consequences. It can lead to medical misunderstandings, impact personal decisions related to health and treatment options, and cause harm, or even death.

When the world is in a state of panic and fear, like it was with the COVID-19 pandemic, people tend to hold onto misinformation a bit tighter. According to a study released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, over 80% of internet users research health-related issues. These internet search results can affect how people make decisions about their health and how they communicate with their healthcare providers, especially if they contain medical misinformation.

But what if it’s not Dr. Google? What if it’s your doctor advising mistaken remedies?

Experimental therapies or medicines can be good fodder for discussion, but misinformation and the improper use of medicines can hurt people. If not directly, the damage is done through incorrect diagnoses and therapies, wasted time and money, and potential impact to the patient’s health and well-being.

On occasion, a doctor may fail to exercise the proper standards of care, including giving bad advice to a patient. In most cases, this isn’t malpractice; bad advice can be a result of lack of knowledge or may simply be an oversight.

There are several ways misinformation in medicine can manifest:

False Claims: Misleading or false claims about certain treatments, supplements, or remedies can gain traction, leading individuals to believe in their efficacy despite a lack of scientific evidence.

Misinterpreted Studies: Sometimes, studies or research findings might be misinterpreted or taken out of context, leading to incorrect conclusions about the effectiveness or risks of certain medical interventions.

Formation: Platforms like social media can easily amplify misinformation in medicine. Rumors, unverified claims, and anecdotes spread quickly, often without proper scrutiny or fact-checking.

Conflicting Information: With the vast amount of health information available online, there can be conflicting advice, causing confusion and uncertainty among people seeking reliable guidance. The FPA and other reliable internet sites aim to work with and occasionally correct Dr. Google.

So how do we know what’s real?

As a patient and consumer, recognizing medical misinformation involves education, skepticism toward unverified claims, and promoting a culture of evidence-based medicine to make informed decisions about health and wellness.

When verifying medical information, remember to:

Educate yourself.

Get a second and third opinion.

Consider the source — is it reputable?

Search for evidence-based supporting facts.

Ask yourself — is it biased?

Communicate with your doctors directly and often.

Doctors combat misinformation in medicine by using critical thinking, promoting health literacy, and relying on reputable sources of information such as peer-reviewed studies, expert opinions, and trusted medical institutions. Your FPA, with the input from its expert Medical Advisory Board, stands ready to guide you and your healthcare providers.

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