The social media ‘infodemic’ is going from bad to worse. Here’s how primary care physicians can be part of the cure.
Social media has transformed the way we communicate, connect, and share information across a myriad of subjects, but its utility as a vehicle for disseminating health information to would-be and existing patients comes with a complex impact on health literacy. When that information is accurate, social media and other digital platforms can be powerful, easy-to-access tools for patients, caregivers, and even other clinicians. But, when the information is inaccurate, unfounded, or fabricated, it’s problematic at best and potentially dangerous.
As patients increasingly take ownership of their own health and seek medical information on their own terms, many are turning to social media, for better or for worse, as their source of truth. According to data released in 2021, on average, one in 10 Americans use social media when looking for health information, for peer support, and to evaluate new treatment options.
On the one hand, this is empowering: Patients who have obtained credible and accurate health information from reliable digital sources (which do exist!) are going into medical appointments more educated, better equipped with questions, and less afraid to challenge providers in an attempt to self-advocate for their health. However, it’s the other side of that slope that’s slippery, and the problem is twofold.
First, we live in a society that has come to expect on-demand results for everything from its coffee to its convictions. And broadly speaking, when one doesn’t take the time to question sources, motives, or data – or fully understand a concept before forming an opinion – it makes an individual vulnerable and easily persuaded by misinformation or outright propaganda. Learning takes time and there’s no way around it. Second, and perhaps building on the first, social media platforms don’t adequately regulate medical content creators, and within that void exists the opportunity to mislead unsuspecting consumers with misinformation.
In fact, research shows that more than 70% of people were exposed to medical or health-related misinformation online last year, and nearly half were not confident in their ability to tell fact from fiction. The same study states that this ultimately “contributed to an increased number of deaths in the U.S. due to nonvaccinations, fewer medical facility visits, false medical advice, and more.”
The pandemic brought significant attention to the spread of health misinformation on social media – from false claims about the effectiveness of treatments to conspiracy theories regarding the virus' origin – to the point where it ultimately became detrimental to public health. According to a study conducted by New York University, individuals who relied on social media platforms for pandemic-related information were found to have lower levels of knowledge about public health safety best practices.
But the impact of the misinformation found online extends beyond COVID-19, and can have consequences for patients with chronic disease, mental health challenges, and poor lifestyle choices. Too often, misleading information about the safety or efficacy of certain diets, alternative therapies, or unregulated products touted as miracle cures can lead individuals to make uninformed decisions regarding their health, potentially putting their well-being at risk.
Though the pandemic has put a spotlight on the detrimental impact of medical misinformation that is spread in social channels, this isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2019, scientists found that of the top 10 health articles shared on social media, three-quarters were either misleading or included some false information. And a study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018 found that false information is 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth, taking the truth about six times longer to reach people than falsehoods. This continued spread of health misinformation on social media highlights the need for increased efforts to combat it – and presents an opportunity for physicians and other clinician scientists to help.
The U.S. Office of the Surgeon General has declared health misinformation to be a significant public health challenge and issued a “Confronting Health Misinformation” advisory with guidance to help combat its spread on social media. The problem of medical misinformation even has a new moniker: It’s now being called an “infodemic.”
At the March 2023 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., the public launch of the Coalition for Trust in Health & Science was kicked off. The Coalition aims to “mobilize the breadth of its network of members to facilitate rapid-cycle debunking of particularly egregious disinformation and misinformation” across 50 leading organizations in the U.S. health care ecosystem.
But, with no legal enforcement option to date, the only effective measure we have at our disposal is a steady drumbeat of counter-messaging from qualified, credentialed clinician-scientists. These have to be our torch-bearers to lead patients away from false information and instead guide them to the source of truth and medical literacy.
We need more physicians and other clinician-scientists to take ownership of promoting accurate medical information from reputable sources, and activate messaging across social media platforms where patients are gathering to consume their medical intel. By claiming their seat at the table, providers can help improve medical literacy, facilitate the ingestion of reliable information, raise public awareness of peer-reviewed science, and set the example for social media platforms to build stricter content moderation policies.
Here are five ways that clinician-scientists can counter-message and help combat the spread of health misinformation on social platforms:
There are a number of “doctor influencers'' or digital opinion leaders who are already doing this well on various platforms. Dr. Mike Varshavski, DO, is a family physician who is making medicine relatable and understandable to the masses via his popular YouTube channel which has over 10 million subscribers. Dr. Camille A. Clare, MD, MPH, is an obstetrician-gynecologist who is spreading awareness about childbirth, postpartum health, and fertility issues to her more than 30,000 followers on Twitter. Dr. Alex George is a U.K.-based ambassador for mental health who is breaking down stigmas and providing easy-to-digest video tips to his nearly two million Instagram followers. Dr. Austin Chiang, MD, is a professor, GI doctor, and “medical myth buster” who is posting cheeky, but accessible TikToks to spread awareness and dispel false claims regarding various treatments.
It’s an eerie reflection of the zeitgeist when patients and their caregivers develop actual health decisions and formulate their health literacy based on the content creations of noncredentialed social media influencers who may be misinformed (or worse, sponsored), rather than from the advice of their own qualified care providers. It’s time for clinician-scientists to reclaim their rightful roles as the arbiters of medical logic and enter the chat where conversations – accurate or otherwise – are taking place on social media platforms.
Collaboration between health care professionals, public health authorities, and social media companies ultimately will be needed to address this issue and ensure that accurate health information prevails online. In the meantime, by establishing a presence in these forums and sharing their expertise, clinician-scientists can play a pivotal role in combating health misinformation, fostering critical thinking, and promoting a culture of evidence-based health care practices. It’s time for the scientists to reclaim the mic.
Christine Medeiros is senior director of strategy and solutions at H1, where she leads a team of dedicated strategists with functional subject matter expertise in scientific stakeholder engagement. She and her team consult with clients to help them answer strategic questions and solve business challenges related to scientific expert identification and connection. She is committed to helping clients develop transformational, best-in-class engagement strategies that support their product lifecycle-based business objectives.