As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, healthcare professionals will continue to be on the front lines. That crucial position, however, comes with myriad challenges that threaten public health. Even seemingly innocuous concepts, such as medical misinformation, have the power to undermine public health on a massive scale.
In fact, public health experts warn that viral misinformation about COVID may ultimately be deadlier than the virus itself. Viral misinformation was even declared the world’s “biggest pandemic risk” in 2018, predating coronavirus outbreaks by more than one year. That year, Vaccine Confidence Project director Heidi J. Larson wrote that “the deluge of conflicting information, misinformation, and manipulated information on social media should be recognized as a global public health threat.”
Larson’s words remain strikingly relevant two years later, in the wake of a global resurgence of COVID. The uncertainty surrounding the novel coronavirus, which is yet incurable, has helped fuel an influx of medical misinformation and false healthcare reports. Unfortunately, these types of dangerous falsehoods can, and do, spread like wildfire, negatively impacting public health as a result.
Misinformation about the coronavirus serves to greatly undermine efforts to encourage social distancing and the wearing of masks in public spaces. While more research is needed, there seems to be a direct correlation between medical misinformation and poor health. For the sake of improved public health, medical professionals are thus obligated to help quell the spread of misinformation by any means necessary. Start by researching your own to counter misleading or harmful medical advice with factual claims and clear-cut data.
Going Head-to-Head with ‘Dr. Google’
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Although medical misinformation may appear to be solely a contemporary issue, where “Dr. Google” reigns supreme, the medical community has been battling false news for more than a century. Today, many of the exaggerated claims made by so-called medical professionals under the guise of medical advice seem almost ludicrous. But make no mistake, the perceived threats may have seemed very real at the time.
In 1843, for example, various physicians claimed that the bathtub, a recent invention, was dangerous to health. Specifically, bathtubs were said to invite various diseases and medical conditions, including inflammation of the lungs and rheumatic fever. Of course, the idea that bathtubs are harmful to health is preposterous to modern humans, but it took more than a decade for the bathtub to shed its unsavory reputation. By 1859, the bulk of the medical community agreed that bathtubs were harmless, and the invention surged in popularity.
It’s unclear how the physicians of the mid-19th century dealt with such types of misinformation or how propaganda affected the way they performed their duties. However, modern healthcare professionals have various tools at their disposal to help combat the spread of misinformation. For instance, various hospitals and clinics worldwide have created an entirely new subset of professional jobs, colloquially known as digital-first responders.
Ideally, digital-first responders attempt to counter misinformation by sharing medical studies, articles, and/or peer-reviewed papers containing the correct information. To wit, if an armchair physician posts an article on their Facebook page decrying COVID as a ploy or conspiracy, a digital-first responder will post an alternative view, one that’s based on facts and medical research. In a world that’s virtually saturated with fake news, misinformation, and opinions presented as fact, the truth is your most powerful weapon.
And, when combating medical misinformation, you’ll likely find that social media is your greatest adversary. The startling reality is that more Americans than ever are eschewing professional medical advice in favor of the friendly suggestions of Dr. Google and the medical journals of Facebook. Never mind that social media isn’t a credible source of medical advice.
Healthcare Misinformation and Social Media
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There’s no question that technology has helped improve healthcare on many levels. For starters, technology can vastly improve the doctor-patient relationship, as well as deliver overall patient value. Further, modern communication technology is a vital part of healthcare in the wake of social distancing. As an example, telehealth was already gaining traction as a convenient and cost-effective way to access healthcare before the COVID pandemic hit: In its aftermath, telehealth has proven vital to patients around the world, whether they’re being treated for COVID, a mental health disorder, or another medical condition altogether.
Yet, the technology that connects patients with their healthcare providers in real-time, from virtually any location, is far from perfect for all its virtues and benefits. Digital communications technology is also largely responsible for the ubiquitous nature of medical misinformation, which effectively saturates the internet. And in the realm of misinformation, Facebook leads the pack.
According to Statista, the massively popular site also doubles as a news source. In fact, Facebook is the leading social network in the U.S. that’s used for weekly news access. All it takes is a single click, and a Facebook user can share fake news and information with potentially thousands of other users. In many cases, it can be difficult to ascertain the reliability of a source shared via Facebook. The unfortunate reality is that the bulk of your patients won’t take the time to fact-check potentially false or misleading medical claims.
Increasingly, the task of combating fake news related to healthcare rests in the hands of medical professionals.
Modern Healthcare Myths that Threaten Public Health
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Whether you’re a surgical fellow at a research hospital or a registered nurse (RN) based in a rural community, you need to understand the specific false claims you’re up against. It’s not enough to declare your intention to combat medical misinformation: You should also be able to clarify specific points of contention and intelligently rebuff outright falsities, especially those that are inherently dangerous.
Where COVID is concerned, be prepared to counter claims that the virus is an elaborate hoax. You should also be able to extol the virtues of wearing a mask and explain (in layman’s terms, if possible) how social distancing helps curb the spread of COVID. You can also inform your patients of lifestyle modifications they can make that may improve overall health and increase the body’s ability to fight against diseases and viruses from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) to COVID and beyond. Make sure to back up every thought with concrete data, and don’t be afraid to cite many sources in the name of combating poorly researched and/or dangerous medical advice.
It’s important to note, however, that the truth may not necessarily prevail. The sheer magnitude of medical misinformation spread around the world means that you’re likely to face an uphill battle regarding swapping out fake news in favor of proven facts. Healthcare providers worldwide are battling both the deadly COVID pandemic addition to the tall tales associated with the virus. Some of the most troubling bits of COVID-related misinformation include the false idea that children cannot contract the virus and that masks do nothing to slow the spread.
Compounding the issue are the various “home remedies” and purported coronavirus cures based on fantasy rather than reality. Yet, the misinformation surrounding remedies and cures should come as a little surprise to most medical communities.
Recreational Drugs and Misinformation
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Another corner of the medical community that’s no stranger to misinformation is pharmaceuticals. However, the pharmaceutical industry has a spotty record regarding perpetuating false claims, especially where alternative medicine is concerned. And the misinformation paper trail is relatively substantial — take, for example, the tobacco industry, which spent years using misdirection and blatantly false claims to avoid regulatory scrutiny and negative press. Various documents uncovered by reporters indicate that tobacco and pharmaceutical companies worked together for decades to downplay the harmful effects of nicotine.
Data indicates that those companies may have also worked to keep alternative cures at bay by vilifying various substances, from cannabis to kratom. In many cases, it just takes a few choices, misleading words to ensure the spread of misinformation, such as “overdose.” Of course, the threat of overdose is genuine for those recreational drug users who rely on opioids. But in regards to plant-based drugs, claims of overdose are greatly exaggerated.
Generally speaking, an overdose occurs when a patient has ingested an excessive and dangerous dose of a drug. But that’s not the entire story, and the word itself may even be misleading: An “overdose” of substances like caffeine, kratom, and psilocybin mushrooms may cause some discomfort, but most patients will walk away from experience unharmed. For the sake of transparency, the word “overindulgence” might be better suited in these instances, as overdose typically implies death.
The good news is that alternative pain management strategies have gained traction in recent years, with kratom and the cannabinoid CBD, a component of marijuana, leading the pack. As more patients turn to these sorts of alternative remedies, their success stories can help combat medical misinformation.
Seeking COVID Cures in a Sea of Falsity
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Despite the purported benefits of plant-based remedies, they have their limitations. Viruses such as COVID-19 are unlikely to respond to cannabinoids or similar components, and researchers around the world continue to seek a cure. Until that time, it’s your job to discourage patients from testing out the COVID “cures” and “remedies” that are easily accessed via online channels.
As an alternative, provide your patients with a list of trusted resources where they can learn about the viability of COVID vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a good place to start. The site is both authoritative and user-friendly, with concrete medical information that’s easy to digest. Interested patients can even learn the methodologies of vaccine creation and immunization best practices.
Curbing the Spread of COVID-Related Misinformation
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In this way, your patients are among your best offensive strategies in the battle against medical misinformation. Encourage those patients to share their positive experiences on social media and provide them with relevant research sources if needed to help them back up their claims. Yet your crusade against pseudoscience doesn’t end there, as medical misinformation virtually saturates online channels.
Whether you’re dealing with an asymptomatic patient who believes that COVID-19 is a hoax perpetrated by the government, or you want to combat the misinformation surrounding vaccines, you’ll likely face an uphill battle. And no member of the medical community is immune from the repercussions of medical misinformation. Alongside MDs and surgeons, healthcare providers, including physical therapists, massage therapists, and chiropractors, also have to be prepared to combat this type of negligence.
The various skills that make you a respected member of the medical community may also be your best line of defense when fighting against fake news. By utilizing your communication, nurturing, and problem-solving skills, you may be able to sway even the most skeptical of patients. And as a medical professional in these uncertain times, it’s your duty to do what it takes to improve public health and take actionable efforts to quell dangerous misinformation related to healthcare.
As far as COVID is concerned, claims made by those within the pseudoscience community must be quickly debunked and in as widespread of a fashion as possible. Your patients may respond better to pictures and memes in our modern digital world than peer-reviewed, academic articles. As such, don’t be afraid to communicate with the masses using charts, graphs, and silly photos of animals. In the fight against medical misinformation, lives are at stake, and as far as solutions are concerned, anything goes.
Years before the novel, coronavirus became part of everyday life. Medical misinformation was rampant. The prevalence of social media has only exacerbated the problem, and medical professionals in every niche must work together to help curb the spread of misinformation.
As COVID continues to wreak havoc throughout the world, counteracting false claims related to medical conditions, remedies, and even social policies made in the name of public health has become vital to the survival of humanity. From primary care providers to occupational therapists and beyond, medical professionals are uniquely positioned to help keep pseudoscience at bay.
And along with helping to saturate the internet with solid medical research and patient success stories, we can lead by example. Always wear a mask in public settings, keep a safe distance from your patients, staff, and those in your community, and encourage others to do the same.