Medical Misinformation: Breaking Beyond Our Social Media Bubble
As doctors and healthcare professionals struggle to battle COVID-19 inside flooded hospitals, there is a different pandemic lurking behind every smartphone screen that 6.6 billion of us each have access to - the infodemic on medical misinformation. For healthcare professionals, the battle is complex, especially when they exist in different social bubbles and are often kept in the dark about the information their patients receive until the consequences emerge. Many have pondered what it might take to cure the infodemic and ultimately put this imminent public health concern to bed. A more robust and holistic alliance of health professionals alongside social media companies is needed, but can these entities work together?
Medical Information and Social Media
With a growing shortage of doctors and healthcare professionals, patients are having to wait longer for their medical appointments and increasingly, the public is turning online and to social media platforms as sources of medical information. The expanding use of social media and growing access to health information could be beneficial and health providers can often leverage this to fill this shortage. Online content, in the form of infographics, videos, and podcasts, is often more engaging than in its traditional form, empowering patients to make their own health decisions and ultimately take an active part in their health management. Online groups can also provide immense support for patient communities, whilst protecting vulnerable patients from physical contact during a pandemic. For the most part, online medical content is valuable to the health community.
On the other hand, patients also run into the risk of misdiagnosing themselves, going through distressing disease journeys, and subsequently joining patient communities irrelevant to their condition. The expanding use of social media, with growing access to information, has also propagated the spread of medical misinformation and ‘fake news’ at an alarming rate. A study in 2021 showed that medical misinformation is prevalent in up to 87% of health-related social media posts. The consequences are detrimental - in the recent pandemic alone, a strong association has been observed between social media activity and the spread of the COVID-19 virus (though no data currently suggest misinformation specifically). As such, it should be considered a public and preventive health measure for medical professionals to work closely with social media platforms to intercept misinformation at its root.
The Social Media Echo Chamber
Today, computer algorithms utilize user behaviors and information to create personalized profiles of relevant content that an individual is statistically likely to interact with. In most instances, this is useful - irrelevant information is filtered out and time is utilized (much like having a personal assistant). Yet as users start to consume more and more algorithmically relevant information, they slowly become encased in a filter bubble (a.k.a. echo chamber) which ultimately caused a state of intellectual isolation.
On top of this, as human beings, we often put ourselves in bubbles. Just as we surround ourselves with friends and a social circle of like-minded individuals, social media profiles are often built around influencers and followers that share similar ideas and worldviews.
Such echo chambers pose a threat to the fight against medical information as health experts are less likely to see what other communities see. Patients initially exposed to misinformation, continue to be exacerbated by like-minded individuals, eventually bringing them further down a rabbit hole of possible mass hysteria. Clinicians are often left in the dark until patients present with misinformation deeply rooted into their world perspectives. Worse yet, harm to health may already have taken place. Similarly, despite public health efforts to push out well-researched, evidence-based health information, this may never reach skeptical individuals, as they too are trapped in their own filter bubbles.
How to Reach Audiences Beyond Our Own Bubbles
In an ideal world, health professionals would have the resources to listen to every individual patient’s concerns, carefully explore their medical views and equip them with the ability to critique their sources. Though this is still uniquely important and should never be replaced, there are broader ways to collaborate with social media companies to reach wider audiences in the fight against medical misinformation. Interestingly, this begins with getting a glimpse of the mysterious information outside of our filter bubbles.
Social media platforms have begun to take proactive steps to moderate false content emerging from their outlets. The game-changing example is Facebook’s removal of 16 million pieces of content and Youtube’s stance to take 850,000 videos offline for promoting “dangerous or misleading COVID-19 medical information.” Increasingly, these same online platforms are now issuing warnings alongside COVID-19 related posts, redirecting the public to more trusted sources of information.
Other platforms have opted to verify accounts and content. This is often done by the process of online data auditing, by health professionals - doctors, nurses, and other health experts. Social media platforms are increasingly interested in leveraging the expertise of these professionals to check through online content and ensure correct information. These are likely perspectives that would otherwise never appear in the social bubbles of health experts.
New paid initiatives have allowed healthcare professionals to conveniently help fact-check social media content in their non-clinical times. Usually, minimal extra training is required, and simply being health board certified is enough to start these projects. With health information being added at an exponential rate, these user-friendly initiatives allow health experts to use their medical expertise and fact-check content as a matter of urgency.
Make Healthcare More Accessible
Responsible health platforms ask their users to ‘consult their doctors for more information.' But whilst reading information online is often free and convenient, attending an appointment may be expensive and time-consuming. One way to combat this is to make healthcare more accessible by leveraging telemedicine platforms.
The telemedicine industry is booming, with an expected average growth rate of 32% until 2028. Confused individuals who have been exposed to potentially questionable content can benefit from the convenience, reduction of cost, and time-saving advantages that telemedicine has to offer to discuss their concerns with a health professional or doctor. On-demand services are offered by many platforms, some with messaging services between clinicians and clients, who can ask questions and read responses at a time that is convenient for them.
More specifically, telemedicine can also be leveraged to target healthcare deserts, remote communities, or under-served settings, as well as communities that don’t speak the official language. Roughly half the global population lacks access to essential health services and in the United States alone, 80% of counties report an unmet need for healthcare access. These relatively socially isolated communities are more susceptible to medical misinformation and targeting them remotely would alleviate part of their isolation.
In a collaborative effort, social media platforms would direct these communities to telehealth providers and in turn, medical experts would offer on-demand appointments, in any language, to answer their health questions. Health concerns will be addressed quickly and efficiently, preventing inaccurate ideas from growing and building foundations.
Stay Up-To-Date and Relevant
If there is one thing that social media and medicine have in common, it is that knowledge and trends are ever-changing. Doctors often get told in medical school that ‘by the time you graduate, 50% of what has been learned will be wrong’. Whether this is accurate, add in a pandemic with accelerated research, health professionals are in danger of falling behind themselves. To efficiently identify the patterns of misinformation and tackle them promptly and precisely, it is important for experts working to fight medical misinformation to join forces and share insights -
- What are the common topics of misinformation?
- Where do they stem from? Do they stem from current gaps in medical research? If so, how can we explain these gaps better to prevent the growth of inaccurate ideas?
- Where are these sources of misinformation? Are these sources aware that this information is being spread across their platforms?
In this way, fact-checkers are also checking one another to ensure that information is moderated with the most up-to-date knowledge.
The Path Forward
There is much work to be done! As a society, we know from experience that preventing health problems is often more effective than treating them. While it is important for health professionals to continue working with their patients in the clinical setting, a big portion of the solution lies within tackling the root of the cause and preventing its spread on social media. This can be achieved by the collaboration between social media companies and health professionals to share expertise, access to information and ultimately form bridges beyond the filter bubble.