20 Feb Dr. Google is Not Your Friend: The Spread of Medical Misinformation
Last December, The New York Times ran an op-ed from from cardiologist Dr. Hader Warraich detailing Warraich’s concerns about an alarm trend: the rise in patients trusting dubious internet research more so than than their doctors’ orders or evidence-based treatments. What’s the problem with internet research? Aside from the obvious panic rabbit holes it can send many patients into, it’s also become a propagator of medical misinformation — particularly in the last decade. There’s, of course, there’s the old stand-by advice from high school English teachers that the internet isn’t exactly a reliable source of information. Anyone can create a blog or a web page. And thanks to social media, that unreliable information has proliferated in recent years. Warraich recounts the story of one patient who’d had a heart attack from high cholesterol despite having previously been prescribed a statin medication to lower her cholesterol. But Warraich’s patient hadn’t taken her prescription thanks largely to internet posts claiming statins cause cancer — some of which even went so far as claiming that low cholesterol was a health risk. Unfortunately, these statements have been de-bunked.
The internet isn’t spreading misinformation about only statins, though. Also on the hits list is the perennial incorrect information about vaccines and even medical therapies that treat deadly cancers. And this propagation of fake information has real-world consequences. As Warraich points out, “A 2017 study found that when cancer patients turn to alternative therapies like diets, herbs and supplements in place of conventional therapies, they are 2.5 times more likely to die.”
Warraich argues that several groups need to take responsibility for the misinformation floating around the digital space, Silicon Valley chief among them, for the spread of erroneous information. Warraich doesn’t let doctors or journalists off the hook, either, positing that physicians must educate more of the public on what medical studies to trust and which ones to be more dubious of — a prime example: industry-backed research that conveniently concludes the benefits of that company’s product. Because journalists are often in the business of getting more clicks on their stories, he argues, they often perpetuate the misinformation by favoring the results of flashier observational studies over those done with randomized trials. The reason, of course, being that those observational studies often have more surprising — though more dubious — results. To read Warraich’s argument in full, the New York Times.