The global public is in the midst of an infodemic. Described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “an overabundance of information, accurate and inaccurate, that occurs during an epidemic,” an infodemic overwhelms consumers with conflicting data, often muddied by misinformation, miscommunication, and agendas.
Explore This IssueOctober 2020
The key driver of this informational onslaught: the media. As coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, news reports disseminated via television, print, and digital outlets and amplified on social media platforms can, intentionally or not, easily lead to confusion among health consumers. The dangers of an infodemic are so dire that this summer WHO hosted its first Infodemiology Conference specifically to discuss this unique challenge in public health management.
Although information overload and misleading messaging are a particular concern now, the problem precedes COVID-19. When it comes to medical science news, clear and consistent information and advice aren’t a foregone conclusion. And, as health departments and organizations work to counter the negative effects of incorrect information, clinical practitioners are on the front lines, working to keep their patients safe and well informed. Even during “normal” times, it’s increasingly difficult to counteract the effects of the incomplete, misleading, and downright inaccurate health information that inundates patients on a daily basis.
The Pros and Cons of Available Information
Consumers, particularly younger consumers and those with a higher education, tend to turn to their computers or mobile devices for information (Cogent Social Sciences. 3:1; DOI: 10.1080/23311886.2017.1302785). And although the internet can be an invaluable resource, clearly it isn’t an objective medical expert.
“The fact that everyone can have a microphone and a platform means it’s really easy for people to latch on to a certain media source that may be reputable in some circumstances but could also be completely off base,” said Kevin Sykes, PhD, MPH, research assistant professor and director of clinical research at the department of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Kansas City, Kan. “It’s difficult for the public to know how to consume information in that case.”
Evaluating the validity of online information has become even trickier as companies seek to market their merchandise or services in the guise of objective information. “[With the internet], the source of the material may not be obvious,” said Erich Voigt, MD, associate professor of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery and director of the division of general otolaryngology at New York University Langone Health in New York City, and host of The Otolaryngology Show on Sirius XM Doctor Radio. “When a person searches the internet for their symptoms or for a disease, search engines may provide links to paid advertisers as opposed to medical sites. There may be biased information that doesn’t provide proper guidance or appropriate perspective.”
That said, scouring the internet to find information about health concerns or answer questions isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Jed Grisel, MD, an otolaryngologist at Texoma ENT & Allergy in Wichita Falls, Texas. “There are many credible sources out there, and information is more accessible than ever. I try to remember that a patient searching for information online is a sign that they are taking their health responsibility into their own hands,” he said. “The downside of getting information through these channels, however, is that the sheer volume of information means that many times the information is either partial, not applicable to that particular patient, or flat-out incorrect.”
To help keep her patients from accessing bad information, Marilene Wang, MD, professor in the department of head and neck surgery at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles, cautions her patients about internet searches. “I recommend that they stick with well-respected university and health systems’ websites and newsletters and avoid believing sensational stories they see on social media,” she said.
The accessibility, immediacy, and global reach of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter wield undeniable power. One false post can serve to distract, harm, confuse, and stir up discord. “Information from social media sites may reflect the opinion of the individual who posts it, and the information may spread quickly without having undergone careful fact checking. Research findings may be misinterpreted or taken out of context, leading to rapid spread of misinformation,” said Dr. Wang. “An example would be when early reports of the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin for COVID-19 were propagated. Soon afterward, with careful review of data and further results from randomized clinical trials, these initial findings couldn’t be confirmed.”