The risk in allowing medical misinformation to spread online

By Linda Childers | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published November 16, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • When seeking health information online, Americans often encounter medical misinformation and false claims that can negatively impact their health. 

  • Americans commonly turn to social influencers for advice on medical-related issues such as anxiety, weight loss, and depression. Consumers are also known to turn to TikTok before their doctor when seeking information and treatment for a health condition.

  • Some physicians have taken to social media platforms to debunk medical claims that aren’t backed by science, aiming to provide accurate and reliable health information.

Most physicians are familiar with the particular frustration of working with a patient whose “online research” has led them down an inaccurate, and sometimes even dangerous, path in seeking an explanation for their symptoms. 

TikTok treatments

Taylor Warmoth, MD, a rheumatologist in Lubbock, Texas, was shocked to learn about the sheer volume of medical misinformation found on social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. 

Hearing some of her patients casually mention potential cures for rheumatic disease they had uncovered online made Dr. Warmoth realize there was a need for physicians to maintain a presence on social media to debunk misinformation and properly educate patients.

A 2022 health information trends survey conducted by the Harris Poll found that consumers are increasingly looking to non-HCPs for critical health information.[] Another study, conducted by CharityRx, found Americans commonly turn to social influencers for advice on medical-related issues such as anxiety, weight loss, and depression.[] The study also found that 1 in 5 Americans turn to TikTok before their doctor when seeking treatment for a health condition.

“The public is consuming healthcare information frequently from various sources and need more help making sense of what they find, what’s credible, and what’s not,” wrote the authors of a news release from the Harris Poll.[] 

"Communicators must find new ways to reach consumers as non-traditional sources become trusted health care advisors."

Authors, Harris Poll news release

Dr. Warmoth hopes that connecting with consumers through her TikTok and Instagram accounts (@thechatrheum) will provide them with educational information about rheumatic diseases. She emphasizes that she does not provide medical advice to her followers.

Selling snake oil in the digital age

“In terms of rheumatic disease, I’ve seen the most misinformation online relating to osteoporosis treatments,” Dr. Warmoth tells MDLinx. “Fifty percent of women are expected to have a fracture due to osteoporosis, and that means there is a huge market for people to make fake claims and try to sell 'miracle' products.”

Dr. Warmoth explains to patients that typically the person spreading misinformation will tell consumers how “terrible” medications are, then present a “miracle” product to help them avoid the perceived dangers of prescription medication. 

“These products are typically snake oils like beets, prunes, or other ‘superfoods,’ that allegedly have properties that can cure chronic disease,” she says. 

"Not only do these products mislead patients and waste their money, they can also delay or stop proven courses of treatment and prove harmful by interacting with other medications."

Taylor Warmoth, MD

The risk of alienating patients

Rather than discrediting a patient, which she believes will only serve to alienate them, Dr. Warmoth acknowledges their desire to learn more about their health condition and possible treatments.

“I tell my patients if they want to review health information online, they should only visit websites that end in .edu or .org,” she says. “Rather than believing a health claim from an unverified source, I encourage them to seek information from credible medical sources, such as the Arthritis Foundation.”

Ryan Marino, MD, a medical toxicologist, emergency physician, and addiction medicine specialist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, has seen a lot of medical myths relating to opiate use. He notes that misinformation about fentanyl, the overdose antidote naloxone (Narcan), and medical treatment for addiction are particularly dangerous.

"Fentanyl has taken on almost boogeyman characteristics, despite being a very old and very well understood drug that is used ubiquitously in medicine."

Ryan Marino, MD

“I’ve heard from people who believe they can overdose through casual ‘exposure’ just from touching the drug, breathing it in, or being near it—none of which are possible,” Dr. Marino tells MDLinx.

When discussing misinformation with a patient, Dr. Marino says presenting facts in a calm, easy-to-understand manner goes a long way.

“Most people respond to facts presented to them this way,” he says. “For the most part, misinformation spreads because there isn’t good information and education available to prevent it. The patients who don’t respond to facts are in the minority, even if they seem quite vocal.”

Taking a stand against misinformation

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how social media contributed to the availability of misleading information. A 2022 study found that social media drove beliefs that led to vaccine avoidance, mask refusal, and questionable cures, while contributing to increased morbidity.[]

With new variants of COVID-19 and booster shots in the news, physicians may once again find themselves presented with misinformation from patients. The AMA published this handout to help physicians combat misinformation, and the website MisinfoRx offers various resources on the topic,[] including a social media toolkit endorsed by the World Health Organization.[]

The good news is that physicians who take the time to correct misinformation can make a difference.

A September 2023 poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that even though people may be unsure whether false claims are true or not, 93% of respondents said they trusted their physician’s guidance.[]

The KFF survey sought opinions on misinformation related to COVID-19, gun violence, reproductive health, and the Affordable Care Act.

With many Americans turning to social media for health information, Dr. Warmoth believes more physicians need to maintain a social media presence to combat the spread of unverified medical claims.

“I’d rather see consumers receive credible, factual medical information from a physician than believing information that isn’t backed by science and is posted by someone who doesn’t have a medical degree,” she says.

What this means for you

With online medical misinformation causing confusion and dangerous health outcomes, there’s a need for doctors to communicate openly and transparently with their patients. As more consumers turn to social media for health information, some experts believe it’s important for some physicians to step up and regularly and consistently post accurate health information online. 

Read Next: Spellbinding: The tricky role of superstition in medicine

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