Although at present there is broad agreement among researchers, health professionals, and policy makers on the need to control and combat health misinformation, the magnitude of this problem is still unknown. Consequently, it is fundamental to discover both the most prevalent healthcare topics and the media platforms from which these topics are initially framed and subsequently disseminated.
Healthcare topics and the impact of misinformation. The term misinformation overlaps with other terms like disinformation. Although both are related to the idea of conveying messages, stories, theories, or opinions that spread rapidly through social contacts or online media, they differ primarily with respect to intent and mode of spread.
Health misinformation then can be defined as a health-related claim that is based on anecdotal evidence, false, or misleading owing to the lack of existing scientific knowledge. This would consider information that is false but not created with the intention of causing harm. While health disinformation can be defined as information that is false or partially based on reality but deliberately created to harm a particular person, social group, institution, or country.
The impact of social media in spreading health misinformation
Over the last two decades, internet users have been increasingly using the internet to seek and share health information. These platforms have gained wider participation among health information consumers, as well as health professionals and organizations who also use this medium to disseminate health-related knowledge.
However, these public tools have also opened the door to unprecedented social and health risks. Although these platforms have demonstrated usefulness for health promotion, recent studies have suggested that false or misleading health information may spread more easily than scientific knowledge through social media. Therefore, it is necessary to understand how health misinformation spreads and how it can affect decision-making and health behaviours.
Health misinformation not only poses a risk for the general public as a group, but it can also have effects on the individual’s psychological well-being and general health. A study from 2010 called “Effects of Internet Use on Health and Depression: A Longitudinal Study” came to this conclusion:
Impact of misinformation circulating on social media during the Covid-19 pandemic
The fundamental role of health misinformation on social media has been recently highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the need for quality and veracity of health messages to manage the present public health crisis and the subsequent infodemic. The impact of misinformation circulating online can be dangerous to the health of the public, as some posts promoted medicines that have not been deemed safe for Covid-19 treatment, while other posts encouraged individuals to refuse to receive a Covid-19 vaccination.
How is the media affecting the healthcare workplace and patient care?
We asked our panel of healthcare professionals around the world about how media and its use of it are affecting the healthcare workplace and how they now deal with patient care; how often patients approached them with a self-diagnosis based on healthcare online information they discovered, and which reliable media sources and developments they trust.
We also investigated how often healthcare professionals access online news or information about developments in healthcare and their medical specialty, to have a better understanding of this hot topic in healthcare.
See what thousands of healthcare professionals think about the impact of misinformation in the full results below, you can also select your language in the box below.
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How medical misinformation on social media can be countered or even prevented?
Dr. Samuel P Trethewey, from the UK, published in the British Medical Journal a paper with “Strategies to combat medical misinformation on social media”:
- Careful dissemination of medical research. Research findings must be presented in an accurate, unbiased, and balanced way, for them to be interpreted appropriately by media journalists and the public and to prevent exaggerated or misrepresented research findings in press releases and news media.
- Expert fact-checking of social media posts. Like the peer-review process used by medical journals, independent experts can be asked to publicly review the content of social media posts to determine their accuracy. This should be accompanied with specific labels that show the status of specific posts: ‘Under review’, ‘Reviewed content’, ‘Fact-checked’, and also have contingency options for when a post is reviewed and found to have inaccurate claims.
- Social media campaigns to directly counter misinformation in the ‘information silos’ or ‘echo chambers’ created for some individuals by the algorithms of the platform. For example, health communication professionals and social influencers can collaborate effectively to create health interventions that are tailored to the preferences, perceptions, and cultures of these relatively closed online communities.
- Greater public engagement with misinformation campaigns run by recognised health organisations or individuals. Public health organisations could benefit from appointing figureheads from medical specialties to advise the public regarding treatments and to help to dispel misinformation regarding their specialty. Another example could be the ‘Ask Me Anything’ (AMA) initiative on the social media platform Reddit, where experts could answer questions from Reddit users directly on the platform.
- Developing a culture of fact-checking on healthcare topics. Invest in and develop the scientific and critical health literacy skills needed to question the validity of information shared on social media, understand where it’s coming from, and ways that the public can check if the information is really evidenced-based or potentially be from an unreliable source.
- Doctors as advocates. Historically cautioned against engaging with social media in a professional capacity, the threat from medical misinformation is such that it demands a proactive, collaborative response Doctors. Healthcare professionals may be able to help to mitigate the medical misinformation mess by curating and disseminating evidence-based content to the public via social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook.
Click here to get more recommendations about ‘Confronting Health Misinformation’ from the U.S. Surgeon Generals’ Advisory on Building a Healthy Information Environment.
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