How Fake Health News Can Lead You to Make Dangerous Decisions

  • 1
    Share

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.”
Why fake health news spreads like a virus
“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.
How fake health news hurts your health
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.