Before people know a health problem exists, and far before they book a doctor’s appointment, the internet is often the first stop to answer their pressing questions.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued for over two years, the need for verifiable health information looms larger than ever. And while the internet can be a great source for the latest information on the pandemic and other important health topics, the content can often be misleading or simply false. Even with access to patient portals and other resources, doctors may not get the chance to talk to a patient before they’ve landed on a piece of health misinformation.
In the current climate, the burden falls on the average person to judge if the content they are reading is true or not.
Even the most internet savvy individuals can be misled by online health misinformation. It’s important for doctors and health information professionals to understand the role of online health information and misinformation in leading patients down the right or wrong path. With the right tools, health information professionals (HIPs) and healthcare providers (HCPs) can help their patients navigate uncharted territory.
Looking at Health Misinformation
"Health misinformation" is a "health-related claim that is based on anecdotal, false, or misleading evidence." Many healthcare professionals agree health misinformation can be dangerous. Getting misleading or incorrect information about a chronic condition or a medication can have serious repercussions.
There are many kinds of misinformation, but the most important thing to remember is that it often looks just like true information.
“A lot of websites that post misinformation look like trustworthy sources. They look just like news sites or health sites. That makes it difficult to distinguish reliable information from unreliable information,” says Dr. Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Buffalo.
It is vital to equip consumers with the tools to think critically about the information they are reading and find accurate sources to answer their health questions. Those tools can be as simple as a list of websites with verified information to replace the dubious sources that may pop up on a social media feed. As health misinformation spreads, educating consumers can be a way to counteract this growing issue worldwide.
How Big Is the Problem?
While health misinformation is far from a new phenomenon, the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased its burden.
As early as February 2020, the World Health Organization warned that the COVID-19 pandemic emerged alongside a "massive infodemic…that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it."
In July 2021, the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, wrote, “Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts.”
“Misinformation is not new,” says Dr. Ophir. “What is new is how easy it is to spread it.”
Think about it: In just minutes, social media users can share information with hundreds—or thousands—of friends, family, and other connections across dozens of sites. The speed and reach of false information make it difficult to stop.
“In our digital age, [fake news] can spread like wildfire. When that happens, it can fuel skepticism, distrust, fear, and anxiety,” says Dr. Teresa Wagner, an assistant professor at the School of Health Professions at the University of North Texas Health Science Center and a clinical executive at SaferCare Texas, which focuses on patient safety and communication.
Adoption of patient portals remains high, but too often people don’t know the simple ways to get in touch with their doctor to clear up perceptions from unclear or misguided health content. Helping to educate people on these options is a good first step to curbing health misinformation, but challenges still exist online.
So, if bad health information is everywhere and looks just like good health information, what hope does the average person have to avoid it?
Think of a seatbelt — wearing it won’t prevent an accident from happening, but it will reduce the risk of serious injury. The tips below won’t stop fake news from filling patients’ social media feeds but can help them spot it and avoid it.
How to Surf Like a Scientist
The AHIMA Foundation is dedicated to helping people navigate health information online. On our new consumer-focused microsite (available in both English and Spanish), we have helpful tips for people searching for valuable health information.
Here are some of the tips to help consumers spot misinformation online and determine a game plan to answer their pressing health questions:
- Focus on goals before searching for health information and be careful not to ask leading questions. Avoid using words like “good” or “bad” which could yield results that include opinion rather than fact.
- Don’t just read the headlines, they can often be sensationalized and lack important context.
- Beware of "Miracle Cures." If the content you are viewing promotes something as a "revelation" or "miracle cure," consider it suspicious.
- Double check sources as even articles from seemingly trustworthy websites or news outlets may publish misleading information.
- Be careful what you share. It’s always good to pause before hitting the share button on any information on social media or with friends and family.
Resources You Can Trust
Giving people a toolkit of resources can help prevent them from seeking out false or misleading health information. Our new microsite also has a list of helpful resources for both English-speakers and Spanish-speakers that can be a good starting point for people in need of health info.
What kind of resources are best to share? Sites like WebMD can be a great source of news or information about common health conditions. Websites for respected hospitals or institutions such as the Mayo Clinic or Cleveland Clinic feature informational resources for patients, including games, quizzes, and podcasts about health.
The main thing to look for in a health resource is validated information that comes from trusted sources backed by research. These helpful tips are the first step towards developing a good sense for health information and in turn better health habits overall.