Trust me, not social media: Tips for combating medical misinformation

By Kristen Fuller, MD
Published March 8, 2024

Key Takeaways

A woman came in with her toddler who presented with a rash that appeared identical to a rubella rash. As I was educating her on rubella and how to help with symptom management, she interrupted me to say she had been applying Crisco to the rash, because she had seen it on TikTok as a potential treatment. 

The spread of medical misinformation

Here we go, I thought. I calmly explained that Crisco is an emollient like Vaseline and can be useful in cases with flaky, itchy, and dry skin rashes, but that it’s not helpful in cases of rubella. I explained that a rash can mean many different disorders, most with treatments more effective than Crisco.

"We laughed a bit, then talked about how social media can be very tricky when it comes to medical information."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Later, her son’s titers were positive for rubella, and I called to share the results and to check on my patient. She thanked me profusely and jokingly told me she had stopped lathering him in Crisco.

This patient encounter was a prime example of how misinformation can spread on social media. Luckily, this viral video didn’t put this woman’s son in danger, and thankfully, she had a good sense of humor about her mistake. 

A lack of trust

A recent study found that 37% of Americans aged 25 to 34 don’t always trust their doctor to make the right decision for them.[] Part of this can be attributed to the fact that many young people are turning to social media for medical advice, rather than a physician.

As physicians, we may see patients who want to disprove what we learned in medical school—they like to argue with us and even refuse certain treatments because of what they read on the internet. It seems wild that our patients would rather listen to a social media influencer than a physician who spent years in school and formal training, but we should try to avoid becoming frustrated with these patients. I believe it is our job to regain their trust so that we can provide them with the care they deserve. 

But how do we do this?

Here are some solid steps to take to combat medical misinformation among our “terminally online” patients. 

  • If you have an online presence as a physician, it’s imperative to only post accurate information you can verify with primary sources. 

  • In the exam room, we must educate our patients from a place of compassion, not frustration. 

  • Have a “rolodex” of reputable online patient-friendly resources for trusted medical information.

  • At the same time, gather a rolodex of physician influencers that are sharing relevant and accurate medical information on social media.

  • Tell your patients that you appreciate them trying to learn more about their disorder, but that the internet can be full of inaccuracies. 

  • Hold your medical colleagues accountable when they share and spread medical misinformation. 

  • Report any medical misinformation that you see online. 

Embrace our new reality

Look, I get it—we spent most of our young adulthood in school and training, and we are still paying off medical school loans, and for what? To fight with our patients about what they read on the internet? It may be infuriating, but it is also the new reality.

Although we know more about medicine than the general public, we cannot take our frustration out on our patients. Instead, we must get them to trust us by leading with compassion and empathy. 

This happens when we ask open-ended questions and invite them to have open dialogues about what they know about their illness or condition. For example, you can check their knowledge about a potential prescription or a new diagnosis; you could even ask about what other physicians have told them about these things in the past.

"Asking questions like these puts the power in the patient’s hand and allows us to get a glimpse into their mind and perspective."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Maybe they don’t know of any reputable online medical resources. Worse, perhaps their last physician was in too much of a hurry to explain their disease or their new medication. To educate our patients, we must first get them to trust us, and this often starts with an engaging, two-sided conversation—not a lecture. 

Remember, most patients believe the misinformation they find online because that’s the only place they’ve been able to find any information at all. 

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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