In the age of immediate information, people are thirsty for answers—and they want them right now. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Google received more than 1 billion health-related questions every day—that’s 70,000 each minute.1 While the internet can be an amazing portal to knowledge, it also provides an overwhelming stream of misinformation, particularly for those seeking answers to questions about their health.
Unlike the internet video that shows you how to install a faucet but leaves out a key step, health misinformation can cause real, immediate harm. It has become increasingly prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic, spreading rapidly through social media and other outlets, creating confusion and distrust. Whether you provide care to patients or members, or are a health care marketer, you’re likely looking for ways to help stem the tide of health care misinformation and guide your audiences toward accurate, impactful resources.
Krames is committed to activating health, and the first step in doing so is putting credible information into the hands of those who need it most. You can share Krames patient education content with confidence, knowing it’s produced by clinical experts, including medical writers and editors who ensure it’s clear and accessible. All content is reviewed on a 24-month cycle and routinely evaluated in response to revisions in guidelines or standards of care, ongoing clinical input from our subject matter experts, and feedback from customers.
While reliable, evidence-based health information like Krames content can help people stay safe and healthy, here’s what you need to know about combating health misinformation.
Going viral: misinformation in the time of COVID-19
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines health care misinformation as “false information shared by people who do not intend to mislead others.”2 This is in contrast to the CDC’s definition of “disinformation,” which implies intentional and malicious falsification of health care information.
Misinformation can be tough for health care providers, payers, and health care marketers to combat. A misinformation source may appear well-intentioned, making people more likely to find it credible or reliable. On top of that, social media algorithms offer up a seemingly endless stream of related videos perpetuating the same ideas from a variety of sources giving the idea more backing and leading down a misinformation rabbit hole.
The scope of the health misinformation problem is broad. For those who believe social media is a benign way to stay connected with family and friends, COVID-19 has proven otherwise. During lockdowns—with the internet often the only link to the outside world—many believed the news from social media platforms. Facebook and Twitter, for example, were recently found to have had a large influence on users during the pandemic, with 76% of respondents noting that they relied on information learned on social media “at least a little.” Researchers found that most people on social media (64%) were unlikely to fact-check the information they found on the internet with a health care provider.3
Common kinds of health misinformation
Health misinformation isn’t new. We can look to the public debate about the smallpox vaccine during the great wave of smallpox outbreaks in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Many people didn’t trust the vaccines or the local governments administering them. Events of the time paved the way for sound public health practices and vaccine safety regulations that are still in effect today.4
Smallpox fortunately no longer plagues us, but some of the same ideas about anti-vaccination still do. Another notorious example of health misinformation is that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might be linked to vaccines (or their ingredients) that children receive but studies have shown there’s no link between receiving vaccines and developing ASD.5
Some of today’s most common health topics susceptible to misinformation are drugs and smoking, followed by diseases and vaccines. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic and related instant, not-always-fact-checked information spread via the internet have exacerbated the problem, inundating the public with health misinformation.
Some common vaccine objections in the COVID-19 era include:6
- The development of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine was rushed
- A COVID-19 vaccine can alter a recipient’s DNA
- A COVID-19 vaccine can cause future fertility problems
- Breakthrough infections mean the vaccines don’t actually work
As COVID-19 has made many people willing to do whatever it takes to reduce risk of infection or treat symptoms, other common misconceptions—particularly about treatment and home remedies—are still rampant. Some people turn to seemingly low risk treatments, including drugs that aren’t approved or authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
For example, there has been growing interest in ivermectin—a drug used to treat or prevent parasites in animals—for prevention or treatment of COVID-19 in humans. The FDA hasn’t authorized or approved ivermectin for use in preventing or treating COVID-19 in humans or animals. Ivermectin is approved for human use to treat infections caused by some parasitic worms and head lice and skin conditions like rosacea.7
Patients may have received another drug, hydroxychloroquine, early in the pandemic under emergency use authorization (EUA) but it didn’t reduce morbidity or mortality. While commonly and safely used to treat malaria and rheumatic conditions like arthritis, the FDA announced a warning on using it on COVID-19 outside the hospital setting due to risk of heart rhythm problems.8
This partial list of health care myths represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to those being spread online.
Tips to separate health facts from fiction
In the face of proliferating falsehoods, follow these tips to fight health misinformation:
1. Proactively engage with audiences
Do you have a social media account? Physicians, in particular, are engaging with patients and the public on health information at a greater scale. They’ve always been champions of public health initiatives but, in today’s social media climate, they have unparalleled access to the public. Many physicians have reported that confronting health misinformation is a core part of their mission.9
Beyond physicians, other health care providers also have an imperative to share their knowledge and combat misinformation in public forums. While the internet is the great equalizer, an information asymmetry in health care still exists—and those who have greater exposure to credible information can work against this.
Along with debunking health misinformation, you might also be able to get ahead of it by prebunking it. Sometimes referred to as psychological inoculation, it creates awareness of the health misinformation with methods that include sharing accurate information before people see conspiracy theories, and exposing the persuasive tactics used by conspiracy theorists.10 Then, just as vaccinated people build up antibodies to fight off disease, people can resist being persuaded by misinformation after they’ve been exposed to weakened arguments.11
2. Carefully choose and share content
In times of crisis, we turn to experts. As current and prospective patients and members seek your guidance, make sure you’re delivering accurate, credible, health literate content via your social media accounts.
Consider reports of a recent study that found exposing people to a World Health Organization (WHO) infographic that debunked a myth about COVID-19 (taking a hot bath can prevent COVID-19 by raising body temperature) reduced participants’ health misperceptions, and this effect was sustained when they were reassessed one week later.12 Researchers involved noted that circulating WHO-affiliated infographics to proactively share facts was an effective strategy for culling misinformation.
Additionally, infographics have been shown to effectively communicate quantitative information. Some Florida health systems are sharing easy-to-understand infographics on their social media to present ICU patient data, showing huge disparities in their vaccinated vs. unvaccinated caseloads.13
This technique of proactive dissemination can be easily adopted with just the swipe of a finger or click of a mouse, if you have the right content ready to go. If you’re like many health systems or payers, your teams remain dedicated to fighting COVID-19, leaving few resources to produce and distribute health education. Turn to qualified patient education content and video creators like Krames for a wealth of patient education videos, including expanded content from The Wellness Network’s video suite.
3. Approach conversations from a position of trust
Successful relationships in health care have trust at their foundation. As a provider or payer, you’ve worked to establish rapport with your patients or members, and your conversations about health care misinformation can build on that connection.
There may be a better approach than simply telling a patient or member to get the COVID-19 vaccination—especially when it can be at times uncomfortable or contentious. Instead, create conversations based on the trusted relationships you’ve built to educate and motivate them to get vaccinated. Try initiating conversations with open-ended questions to discern their objections.
For example, talk to those you care for about how the vaccine can reduce health risks for them and their families. Some people aren’t motivated by the idea that vaccines protect the larger community. You may say to a patient or member, “We recommend that you get the COVID-19 vaccine, especially because your [condition] puts you at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.” A specific vaccine directive makes it clear that you recommend a vaccine for them or their child—and will make it more likely that they’ll follow through.
Then, address their concerns as their decision-making partner, noting how their particular health issues may impact them. You can support this guidance by using credible health education.
4. Create and prioritize strategic partnerships
Forming strategic partnerships with community groups and other trusted local organizations may strengthen your fight against health misinformation. For example, the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Public Health Department, Cambridge Public Schools, and the Cambridge Health Alliance joined forces to combat vaccine hesitancy in their community by throwing a summer vaccine party.14
On a broader scale, leveraging information from credible sources such as national public health agencies and nonprofit research organizations can help you extend your influence and elevate your trusted health messaging even further. Consider the collaboration between Krames and the American Heart Associations (AHA) that enables you to provide patients and members with resources designed to fight cardiovascular disease and stroke.
5. Solidify credibility by citing reliable sources
Attempts to combat health misinformation can fall on deaf ears if you aren’t prepared to provide reliable sources. A public that’s drowning in fragmented and distorted information deserves straightforward, reliable, and trustworthy resources.
It can be helpful to examine what criteria make these sources reliable in the first place. At Krames, we adhere to these guidelines to ensure our content’s credibility:
- Ensure your information is from a credible and evidence-based resource such as health organizations or associations, research journals, clinical textbooks, governmental institutions, or pharmaceutical inserts.
- Verify that your content is at an appropriate reading level so it’s easily understood by your audience (aim for between 6th and 8th grade).
- Make certain the content you promote is clear and concise for easy readability.
Educating patients, and the public at large, with content that conforms to these rigorous standards can go a long way in the fight against health misinformation.