The Lancet - Medical misinformation and the internet: a call to arms

7 June, 2019

'You can only be empowered with your health if you are accurately informed', concludes an article in this week's print issue of The Lancet.

Extracts below. Full text here: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(19)31206-1/fulltext

CITATION: Jen Gunter. Medical misinformation and the internet: a call to arms

The Lancet| volume 393, issue 10188, p2294-2295, june 08, 2019

Published: June 08, 2019DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(19)31206-1

'It is hard for people to wade through the quagmire that is the medical internet. Bad information is everywhere, fear sells, and the lure of the cure is real. In our 24/7 news cycle a misleading medical story can spawn many erroneous articles. Sometimes the content is actually accurate, but the headlines are incorrect. And let's face it many of us, doctors included, don't always read to the end of a story.

'We also all mistake repetition for accuracy, a phenomenon called the illusory truth effect. And social media, with retweets and reposts, is the very model of repetition.

'The more I see fake medical news, the more I realise we need to use all mediums and media to tackle it. The glut of medical misinformation is real and it harms. It turns people away from vaccines, fluoride, and leads them to useless products. And don't underestimate the weight of “it can't hurt, so why not?” advice. Whether it is useless underwear changes or forgoing all sugar, it compounds desperation when it is ineffective. And snake oil peddlers are always standing by with a confidence we evidence-based practitioners can only dream to emulate.

'Guiding your patients to accurate information is also important. Find good online resources and offer them as handouts or e-mail the links directly if you can do that securely. Your patients are looking online, whether they tell you or not. Offering them curated content from trusted sites, such as the National Health Service in the UK or professional medical societies, validates their search efforts and I believe it makes people more likely to share with their health-care provider what they found online...

'Everyone should learn the following four basic rules of internet health hygiene. The first is never read the comments as ad-hominem attacks beneath the content can lead people to question the very facts that were just presented. The second is avoid sharing bad information—even in jest. We are all primed to remember the fantastical and sadly medical truths are usually stodgy. Also, sharing makes the bad content more popular algorithmically speaking. The third is don't get information from anyone selling product. Bias has an impact. And finally, steer clear of content from practitioners who are against vaccination or who recommend homeopathy.

'We in science are the people who developed surfactant, the measles vaccine, and safe blood transfusions. We created anaesthesia, highly active antiretroviral therapy, and newborn screening for thyroid disease. We know how to do great things with science. Helping people have access to quality information so they can make informed decisions is also one of those great things, because you can only be empowered with your health if you are accurately informed...

'And it is simply not acceptable to me that quality research that can save lives and reduce suffering could be undone by a medical conspiracy theorist or a celebrity looking to sell supplements. Come join me in building a better medical internet.

Best wishes, Neil

Let's build a future where people are no longer dying for lack of healthcare information - Join HIFA: www.hifa.org

HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of the HIFA global health campaign (Healthcare Information For All - www.hifa.org ), a global community with more than 19,000 members in 177 countries, interacting on six global forums in four languages. Twitter: @hifa_org FB: facebook.com/HIFAdotORG neil@hifa.org