How to Address Fake Medical News

DECEMBER 27, 2016
Heidi Moawad, MD

Online misinformation and fake news have gotten a lot of attention recently. While fake news of the political nature has become a matter or hot public debate, online misinformation about health and medicine has been around for years – and has been an annoying thorn in the sides of doctors who have to deal with well meaning patients and relatives who have been exposed to odd and inaccurate medical 'facts' shared online.
 
Many doctors have succeeded in helping those who have been misinformed, while some doctors have unfortunately been reprimanded by patients or even by personal friends or family members who adamantly reject physicians’ medical knowledge.
 
Here are a few techniques that doctors have shared when it comes to responding to the challenges brought to clinical care by medical misinformation.  
 
Be Respectful 
Patients who fall victim to medical misinformation are generally reading articles or watching videos that are widely available. Much like the 'old wives tales' of the past, medical misinformation sounds believable and logical. A number of miracle cures for routine ailments and for serious illnesses seem like the solution everyone has been looking for. Who can blame a person for believing that a certain oil or spice could produce a beneficial physiological reaction? After all, whoever wrote the article must know, right? So, the first thing to do is to be respectful of a patient who simply does not have a background in chemistry or biology, because most of the medical misinformation circulating online actually sounds plausible. 
 
Don't Feel Personally Attacked 
When patients hear that a commonly practiced medical approach could be dangerous, it is perfectly logical for them to be cautious as they look out for their own health or the health of their loved ones. The caution and skepticism is in regards to the medical intervention- and is not personally directed towards you, as their doctor. If you can remind yourself to avoid feeling personally attacked, you can at least give yourself a few moments to respond in a way that shows concern and respect for your patient's fear rather than feeling defensive about your knowledge or experience as a physician. 
 
Say That You Care 
Often, articles and videos that spread medical ‘fake news’ start with statements such as: ‘what your doctor doesn’t want you to know…’ It may help to gently remind your patient that you do care about his or her medical condition and about his or her opinion. 
 
Acknowledge the Priority and Goal of the Visit 
A redirection and restatement of the goal of the visit can help get your patient back on track. Reminding your patient that the number one priority is to get better or to prevent illness and that you want to focus on making that happen can help put the misinformation in perspective. 
 
Agree To Look Into the Subject If It Is Reasonable To Do So
It may feel like you shouldn’t spend your time addressing medical misinformation, but if it makes its way into your office, then it probably won’t go away unless you deal with it. Answering the question shows that you are respectful and genuine. If you know that the misinformation is false, then you can give a one to two sentence explanation of why it is wrong or dangerous. If you are unfamiliar with the misinformation, it might be worthwhile for you agree to look into it. It is likely that other patients or even staff in your practice will bring the same misinformation to you, and your mastery of the subject (even an understanding of the wrong information going around) will serve you in managing the problem for years to come. 
 
Explain Whether the Misinformation is Harmful or Lacking in Benefit 
Most importantly, you should strongly express that you think following medical misinformation is dangerous for your patient when you have real apprehensions. And you should also explain your concerns when you think that your patients might follow online advice that is of no benefit and holds an unknown risk of harm. 
 
Direct Patients to Further Reading
Of course, your time is valuable, and after a brief discussion, you might prefer to send your patients to a resource that you consider patient friendly and accurate. It might even be helpful to find a few such resources ahead of time for common misunderstandings in your specialty. And, if there is no such resource you can find in your own specialty, consider authoring one yourself, as this pediatrician did to address concerns her own patients expressed about HPV vaccine.
 


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