Medical Misinformation is a Threat to Your Health
Facts matter. Especially when it comes to health and medicine. Inaccurate, misleading, and blatantly fake information creates confusion for people, causes mistrust of health professionals, and prevents people from getting the health care they need.
In 2020, at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Columbia physician Eric Burnett, MD, downloaded TikTok as a way to escape what he was witnessing on the front lines. “That escape never happened,” he says. “I immediately encountered an extraordinary amount of conspiracy theories that doctors are lying; the death numbers are not real; masks don't work; there's no need to isolate. It was, and still is, concerning.”
Instead of abandoning social media for another escape, Burnett dug in and worked to counter the misinformation. We spoke to Burnett about his experience.
How prevalent are myths and misinformation?
Most of the health and medical myths that I see are related to COVID, particularly about vaccines. Because there is no fact checking, no need to be educated or have proof, anyone can just say what comes to their mind, so there's tons and tons of misinformation and disinformation. Myths spread without consequence to the person who started them.
And the myths and misinformation are not only about COVID. I recently saw someone say you should go on a juice fast to starve cancer because doctors are trying to kill you with chemotherapy. It’s hard to believe people would think that was real, but there are comments asking this person, who has no background in science or medicine, for advice.
It's important that people understand where information is coming from, verify it, and take a step back before sharing.
Getting it right takes time. Researching and breaking down scientific studies and papers takes time. Distilling the information you find and explaining it to people who do not have medical training takes time. Many people do not take the time to get facts straight.
Another problem is sometimes reality is boring. On social media, especially, boring facts get no attention. Getting attention and engaging people on social media is usually about finding a sensationalist perspective, no matter if it is true or harmful.
What prompted you to do something about medical misinformation?
It’s my job as a hospitalist to care for people who are so sick they need to be in the hospital.
Seeing the reality of COVID in the hospital and processing the trauma of the real experience, it was hard to hear people say what so many of us were experiencing was fake.
I knew I had a viewpoint different from most people, especially everyone isolated at home, separated from the front lines of the crisis. I decided to make a video to help people understand public health measures and precautions are not to make you uncomfortable. It's for your health and everyone’s health. I didn't expect much to come of it, but I wanted to contribute. The next day I had a few thousand views.
Now, people tag me when they have a question about something they encounter on social media. I encourage skepticism. I have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and Instagram, plus a half million on TikTok. I am grateful I can reach that many people with each post.
It’s a lot of work to keep up with but it’s an extension of my job as a physician.
Why is it important to debunk medical misinformation and disinformation?
Medical myths are extraordinarily dangerous. Especially in a pandemic, which will happen again. Medical misinformation and disinformation about COVID made it much harder for health care workers to do their jobs. Widespread misinformation erodes faith in public health.
An important part of what I do is educate people about the way science works. Medical and health misinformation spiked during COVID in part because in the early days, people saw and heard science playing out in real time on the news.
If you work in science or medicine, you know that reacting to and making decisions based on the most current data is part of the process. Our information about COVID changed quickly, and recommendations for the public changed quickly. That's the essence of science. It’s not flip-flopping. It’s not lying. It’s evolution. This is what we should all want. We do not want decisions based on outdated data.
Have you experienced backlash doing this work?
Yes. It is something that I have learned I have to face. I've had my personal information shared online so people can harass me more directly. I do worry about my safety. But I feel it's my job to protect public health. If I give up, and misinformation wins, we will all suffer.
How can someone verify medical claims they see online or in social media?
Be a critical thinker. Check the source. If the person or site is reliable, the information will be based on old school journalism-style reporting and fact checking, backed by science and data. Reliable sources link to, refer to, or can provide reliable backup if requested.
Check the dates of the information and images. Science is constantly evolving with new information. Ask a doctor you trust.
Step back. Spend five or 10 minutes fact checking. If you cannot verify the information is accurate, do not share.
Eric Burnett, MD, is an internist who specializes in hospital medicine and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. You can see his work on social media at firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/Doctor_Eric_B and instagram.com/eric2687/.