Taming the Frontier: Clearing Health Misinformation on Social Media

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Taming the Frontier: Clearing Health Misinformation on Social Media

"Believe half of what you read, and half of what you see, put them together and you get reality," goes an old couplet, most likely cobbled together by someone in a pre-internet world. Factor in the depthless reaches and unfathomable connectedness of the World Wide Web and this kitschy little slice of amateur mathematics goes askew. That's the double-edged sword of the internet. On one side, we're given unprecedented access to global canon of knowledge, libraries upon libraries worth of information and a universal platform on which to broadcast our findings with colleagues, relatives and even complete strangers. But then there's the other side, the dark underside, that reminds us that though vast and impressive, the internet is still largely an untempered and lawless frontier in which anyone possessing an Ethernet cable, a mobile data plan and a half-brained idea has a voice, and (with the advent of social media) even an audience.


This isn't an indictment of the internet. Not by a long shot. As an aging Gen-Y, I too have found myself sucked into the unending E-rabbit hole of nerdy internet conversations about scifi or of searching for quick and budget-friendly treatments for my seasonal allergies, and I wouldn't change a minute of that. The internet has leveled the playing field for all of us. Business and consumer. Teacher and student. Physician and patient. It's given us all a "say" and access to information that, just decades ago, would've been nigh but impossible to establish and, with social media's ubiquitous rise, helped even the most obscure niche groups establish a sense of community one with another. However, social media affords another potent benefit for all working professionals: the power to dispel myths and disinformation.


Health Information and Social Media

Social media's influence on healthcare need not be understated. Live tweeting medical conferences and even delicate surgeries via pre-established "hashtags" or consumer-rating one's trip to the oncologist are becoming well-established online norms. Indeed, health-centric sites that purport to take a list of symptoms and determine a user's ailment abound, and in an age of instant sharing and gratification, questions, concerns and insights into the changing healthcare landscape float freely in the ether as quippy articles and press releases, shared via friends in online health communities and on news aggregator sites.


A Pew Internet research poll from 2013, tracking the online habits of patients, reports that one in three Americans have used the internet to self-diagnose their particular health concern. This alone isn't anything disconcerting. Working the internet in as a patient's "health toolbox" has been a reality for some time. However, of these Americans who report using the internet to diagnose themselves, only a measly 35 percent report speaking with a physician to confirm the diagnosis. This means that the majority of users aren't confirming their findings with a competent medical voice, and may in fact be following false information.


Sure, patients need not sound the alarm bells over a sunburn, cold or bee sting, but some conditions really should be verified by a professional. Furthermore, the gamut of health information available online varies substantially. Credible health sites, clear on down to "these 5 foods will make you invincible" articles are all fair game for a curious patient, who may not have the necessary discernment to separate scientifically proven information with internet link-bait.


Social Media

Perhaps this is social media's greatest application for physicians. While still a tenuous development in many circles, and a constant medical headline in others, the benefits it offers for willing physicians are numerous. For one, it allows them to connect with large groups of patients instantly and on numerous levels, disseminating valuable health information and even practice-centric details (closures, rescheduling and the like) as a "customer service" to local patients.


In a recent KevinMD article on social media's application for physicians, Howard Luks, MD distills it poignantly as "a place outside of the confines of our offices to address the questions, fears, and apprehensions of the countless individuals seeking meaningful, actionable, and useful health care information."



Though often well-meaning, social media is often a breeding-ground for short, vapid, shareable bits of information, more geared at gaining hits and read-clicks than actually informing anyone of anything substantial. Well, that and needless political debates.


Physicians online have the ability to control this conversation though, and can change it by simply sharing good links online. There need not be any breeches of HIPAA guidelines or delving into off-limits territory (a quick Google search can tell you all the problems there), but can take from the wealth of solid, useful and relevant health information that already does exist online, outside of the glittery confines of Buzzfeed top 10 lists.


Pew Internet Research reveals that patients have long since been using the internet for their health research. However, given the glut of limp information, they don't always know what's worth their time. Using their credibility as medical professionals with a social media presence, physicians can steer their followers (and the general online conversation) towards sensible health information, standing as a voice of reason and clarity amidst a deluge of shallow misinformation.


Is this the job of the Physician?

Absolutely. The implication of a physician's work goes far beyond the four walls of the exam room.  Where patients once had a dearth of health information, they now have more than they can feasibly handle at once. Academic, jargon-ridden, peer reviewed articles are a wonderful blessing of the internet, one that affords scholars and physicians alike to crack untold tomes of information with simple mouse clicks. However, patients (by and large) aren't scouring these sources, nor are they always able to adequately understand them.


Good physicians take complicated health conditions and procedures  explain them in a digestible way to patients in the exam room, so too can they re-direct this kind of delivery onto the social media channels and avenues that their patients are most likely to be using.


The Cream Rises

Perhaps the idea of taking to social media leaves some physicians feeling rattled. Certainly, one can lead a patient to quality healthcare information, but you can't necessarily force them to follow it...and what about all the other stuff out there, clouding the way for quality information?


The cream will rise to the top, so to speak. Good, credible and comprehensible health information can only reach patients if it's put out there, released into the wild untamed frontier of the internet. With many physicians taking to the internet as a means of practicing medicine, the unending potential to establish a secure and vibrant knowledge base of good medical information looms imminent. Physician blogging sites and aggregators take contributions from numerous physicians, and are easily shareable via personal or professional social media profiles.


Facebook will always be a great place to share pictures of cats, or to glance at pictures of your aunt's most recent trip to Aruba, but establishing a coherent avenue for viable and useful health information? It can only help us in the long run.




Besser, Richard, Gitika Ahuja, and Lee Ferran. "Tweeting Medical Misinformation?"

            Abcnews.com. ABC News, 30 Mar. 2010. Web. 15 July 2014.


Fox, Susannah, and Maeve Duggan. "One in Three American Adults Have Gone Online to Figure out a Medical Condition."

            Pewinternet.org. Pew Research Internet Project, 15 Jan. 2013. Web. 15 July 2014.


Levine, Brian, MD. "More Medical Academic Literature Is Needed on Social Media."

            KevinMD.com. KevinMD, 5 June 2014. Web. 15 July 2014.


Luks, Howard, MD. "Use Social Media to Help Clear Health Misinformation."

KevinMD.com. KevinMD, 5 June 2014. Web. 12 July 2014.


McCormack, John. "Rumor Control: How to Battle Online Misinformation."

            Amednews.com. Amednews, 17 Mar. 2008. Web. 15 July 2014.