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Medical misinformation leaves patients in ‘muddled middle’ for health care knowledge


KFF survey analyzes false statements and finds people put trust in ‘probably.’

medical fake news misinformation: © Mohd Azrin - stock.adobe.com

© Mohd Azrin - stock.adobe.com

The proliferation of medical misinformation leaves patients in a state of confusion about public health topics.

A new KFF survey analyzed the spread of phony claims about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines, reproductive health, and gun violence. The polls findings show seeds of doubt in patients who think incorrect information is probably true or probably false.

“Most people aren’t true believers in the lies or the facts about health issues; they are in a muddled middle,” KFF President and CEO Drew Altman said in a news release. “The public’s uncertainty leaves them vulnerable to misinformation but is also the opportunity to combat it.”

That means physicians may have to spend time correcting patients’ misperceptions, but there’s good news: 93% of respondents said they trust their doctors at least a fair amount, according to KFF.

Social media is far less credible. Less than one in 10 people said they have a lot of trust in health information they find on YouTube, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, and other platforms, the KFF report said.

Believe it or not

KFF tested people’s responses to fake claims about three hot-button public health issues.

Relatively few people said those assertions were definitely true, and some respondents said they were definitely false. The greatest percentages were in the “muddled middle,” with respondents saying the phony facts were “probably true” or “probably false.”

For example, 10% of people said it was definitely true that “the COVID-19 vaccines have caused thousands of sudden deaths in otherwise healthy people,” while 31% said it was definitely false. In the probably zone, 23% said it was probably true, while 34% said it was probably false.

Responses had demographic variations.

“Black adults are more likely to believe this false statement than White adults, while Republicans and independents are more likely than Democrats to do so,” the KFF report said. “People with college degrees are less likely than those with a high-school education or less to say this is true.”

MMR and autism?

Dealing with more general medical information, 5% of people said it was definitely true that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccines cause autism in children. KFF found 20% said that was probably true, even though physicians have been fighting that falsehood going on three decades.

Definitely probably

Among the false statements and percentages, 47% said it was definitely false that “more people have died from the COVID-19 vaccines than have died from the COVID-19 virus.” That was the largest percentage of respondents declaring a claim definitely false.

Regarding gun violence, 18% of respondents said it was definitely true that “armed school police guards have been proven to prevent school shootings,” and another 42% of people said that was probably true, according to KFF. A study in the Journal of Adolescent Health “found no evidence that the presence of resource officers in schools lessened the severity of school shooting incidents.”

For reproductive health, about 7% of respondents said it was definitely true and 29% said it was probably true that using birth control makes it harder for most women to get pregnant once they stop using them, the KFF survey said. A meta-analysis published in the journal Contraception and Reproductive Medicine found contraception “does not have a negative effect on subsequent fertility.”

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Michael J. Barry, MD