Fake health news can do real harm. Here’s how to spot the difference between false stories and verified information.
Sleeping with raw, sliced onions in your socks can release toxins from your body. Two handfuls of cashews can alleviate depression just as much as a dose of Prozac. And were you aware that a vaccine for diabetes has been found in Mexico?
If you believed everything you read online, you might as well never go to your primary care doctor again. (Or at the very least you’d be heading to the store for onions and cashews, then booking a flight to Cabo San Lucas.)
But in fact, all three of these popular health stories have been debunked by fact-checking resource Snopes.com.
Not that it matters, though — there’s still plenty of questionable health news out there.
“Fake news” isn’t just a phrase that politicians haul out in an attempt to discredit information they’d rather the public not believe. It can also refer to medical stories that are more speculation (intentional or not) than truth.
“False medical information and news makes patients scared unnecessarily and can often delay necessary medical care and attention,” pointed out Dr. Shilpi Agarwal, a board-certified family medicine physician in the Washington, D.C. area. “Additionally, [it] can sometimes cause individuals to spend money on treatments that are not actually medically proven or accurate… People who are not trained medical providers can put out any information online.”
“Most of us have done it — some more than once,” acknowledged Dr. S. Adam Ramin, urologist and medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles. “You come down with an illness… and what do you do? You page Dr. Google and research your condition online. Depending on the words you search and the preexisting knowledge you may or may not have, such an activity can send you spiraling down a rabbit hole of worry and despair.”
Or conversely, make you feel that you’ve found a research study or new treatment for your health issue that your doctor — for some reason — isn’t privy to.
In 2016, an article with the intriguing headline, “Dandelion weed can boost your immune system and cure cancer,” was shared 1.4 million times on Facebook. It was the most shared “cancer” story on the social media platform that year.
The only problem? It wasn’t true.
While dandelion may have benefits for cancer patients, at the time of publication, a study had just launched and no results had been confirmed.
“There’s lots of false information on the internet because there are people who want to believe things to be true, have incentive to believe that they’re true, are trying to sell you something or convince you not to buy something. You have to sift through all of that,” explained Dr. Ivan Oransky, president of the board of directors of the Association of Health Care Journalists.
The internet is an insatiable beast that requires content around the clock. (As do all us readers.) And not just any content, but that which is clickable and easy to digest.
Medical studies don’t organically fit that bill. They’re dense with scientific jargon, figures and tables to interpret and methods of analysis to take into account. Much can get lost in translation — by either accident or convenience — by the time all that’s transformed into a must-click headline.
Take, for instance, a 2017 study published in the medical journal, JAMA Internal Medicine. Its decidedly unsexy title? “Comparison of hospital mortality and readmission rates for Medicare patients treated by male vs. female physicians.”
It was far more interesting to the internet when it was whittled down to the “news” that women doctors are superior to men.
What wasn’t captured: the fact that this was an observational study, meaning it provided data, but not a specific cause about the data.
“It is almost as though, when it comes to medical headlines, popularity beats out the evidence,” Dr. Roger Ladouceur, an associate scientific editor for Canadian Family Physician wrote in response to the “news” this particular study generated.
By the time of its publication, the JAMA study had been viewed a whopping 230,000 times, with 4,000 of those coming from outside the academic world.
The fake health news you read also makes your doctor’s job harder.
“We often spend a good amount of a medical visit correcting misinformation and re-educating the patient,” said Agarwal.
It can also cause a patient to doubt what their doctor ultimately advises.
“Patients don’t know who to trust,” Agarwal explained. “Their online source or their doctor?”
She recalls several of her patients who purchased supplements to cure their various ailments — weight loss, depression, even diabetes. Some paid up to $400, and were hopeful these new treatments would work, based on what they believed were legitimate medical claims. They didn’t.
Ultimately, Agarwal went online with each of her patients and explained why what they’d read was false. “Then,” she said, “we worked together to find a plan I could help monitor.”
To keep an open mind, but also remain clear-eyed about what you read, consider these tips:
Seek out reputable sources
Take cues from medical advisory organizations. What’s the American Heart Association response about a new heart disease study? Has the American Cancer Society weighed in on that supposedly breakthrough cancer treatment everyone on Facebook is sharing? The information from organizations like these have been carefully written, reviewed and vetted by experts.
“In other words, it’s credible medical information that has been scrutinized through rigorous review processes and can generally be trusted,” Ramin said.
Look for more than one source of info
Can you find sustained information — that is, a pattern, trend, or a number of studies which have all reached the same conclusion? “If something says, ‘the first study to show…’ I wouldn’t use that to make decisions,” said Oransky. “You want to make a decision about your health based on a body of evidence, not a single study.”
Get in touch with your inner skeptic
“Trust and verify,” advised Oransky, noting the tried-and-true rule of journalists: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
Just because a research study or claim from an expert sounds good — or appeals to what you’re already doing, doesn’t mean it’s authentic. And beware of easy-peasy claims — for instance, “Eat this super fruit once a day and you’ll never get cancer.”
If it’s too good to be true, Oransky points out, it probably is.
Talk to your doctor
“Even the most credible information found online is useless in the absence of expert physician evaluation and diagnosis,” said Ramin. Tell your doctor what you’ve read online. Email them the article that’s captured your interest, or print it out and bring it to your next appointment. “A good doctor will walk you through it,” Ramin noted.
Get a second opinion
“I would be wrong if I said that every physician’s assessment and recommendations are 100 percent perfect, all of the time,” acknowledged Ramin. “Like you, we are human after all.”
If you walk out of your doctor’s office feeling like your questions were blown off, it may be time to look for another doctor.
“This isn’t necessarily because the doctor is ‘wrong.’ It has more to do with how you feel about the interaction,” said Ramin. “In fact, research has shown that patients are more likely to follow the course of treatment when it’s recommended by a physician they trust. Internet research aside, it’s important to go with your gut on this one.”