Imagine 93 million Americans searching for medical and health information online, where some of it is patently wrong, but having no way of knowing what to believe. Health misinformation has fast become a threat to compliance with health treatments, to adoption of response efforts in epidemics, and to trust between health providers and their patients.
Not a 2020 phenomenon at all, the spread of false health information has gone unchecked for over a decade, with social media adding to the problem, according to an NBC News analysis. Cancer-related topics, unproven cures, and vaccines were the most viral pieces of fake health news in 2019.
And it hasn't stopped. Recently, public health authorities have been battling COVID-19 on two fronts: averting a pandemic; and fighting an infodemic, an overabundance of information both accurate and inaccurate. Health misinformation, fallacies, myths, and rumors about the disease are spreading so much faster than the virus itself that the World Health Organization chose to join TikTok to provide reliable and timely public health advice to people online.
Misinfodemics—the viral misinformation that facilitates the spread of a particular health outcome or disease—are a growing public health issue according to a study by the Digital Health Lab of Meedan, a technology nonprofit. While some strategies in fighting “fake news” like fact-checking and policy changes to ban or limit the spread of false health information may apply, “...an ounce of prevention is still better than a pound of cure.”
While its spread can be mitigated, fake health news cannot be prevented. What can be prevented, however, is patients' believing and subscribing to it. How? By using the same technology in patients' hands that providers currently use to reach patients, engage them, and equip them with the right health information that’s relevant to them.
A patient engagement platform is a health communication technology that bridges the patient to their healthcare team for everything and anything that they need, or want, to know related to health and well-being. The ability of health providers to engage the patient anytime, anywhere, and on any device through health technology is the most effective option for delivering the right information at the right time.
Healthcare providers essentially become arbiters of the information that patients need to know, and this information must be accessible and available at any time. Both the care required, as well as information around it, can be provided through technology that automates communication and clinician protocols and routines, including patient education.
Better-informed care means more timely care means better care. And timely care allows for a more proactive provider. When there is a disease outbreak, an epidemic, or a public health risk, it is key to be one step ahead of social media and rumor-mongers to inform, educate, and address the concerns of patients. Aside from crucial, correct information, this is also a confidence-building measure to preserve patients' trust in their providers and the health system.
According to NBC’s analysis, “...health misinformation spread online can also erode trust among people and governments and other institutions, as well as doctors and patients.”
With this backdrop, it’s imperative that healthcare providers take the lead and be at the forefront in battling health concerns, most especially addressing health misinformation. They are the source of true information and the filter for facts that patients need to know.
“Do healthcare insiders (clinicians, administrators, IT folks, media, et al.) have a moral obligation to combat fake medical news, or ‘quackery’?” asks Colin Hung (@Colin_Hung), Health IT leader and cofounder and editor of HCLDR (@hcldr), an online community of healthcare advocates.
Hung cited how Dr. Austin Chiang (@austinchiangmd) started the Association for Healthcare Social Media (AHSM) in part to “combat misinformation” on social media. By encouraging more physicians to become active on social media, Chiang is hoping to drown out fake medical information, something Hung wrote about in his piece, “Medical Misinformation: A Moral Imperative.”
Patients should be engaging with their health providers, not with “...self-proclaimed experts, Twitter-savvy celebrities, and digital scammers who have direct lines to the public, often with no editorial oversight. They are what the American Medical Association described as “the quack doctors in digital media.”
As a countermeasure against medical misinformation, as noted in that same report, the AMA suggests that “...health professionals and medical researchers can provide direct rebuttals and cite the provenance of misinformation.”
But for providers who have patients to care for and little time for online debates, you can simply engage your patients. You are their trusted resource for the right information. And this is where patient engagement technology becomes so crucial.
WHO has seen how misinformation about COVID-19 “...makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” WHO has recommended that “...countries should prepare to communicate rapidly, regularly, and transparently with the population.”
This global-level type of response against any and all health misinformation begins with the individual provider, through effective and consistent patient engagement. #BeLifeWIREd