Medical Misinformation on the Web

Northwest Arkansas, where I live, is in the throes of a mumps outbreak. So is Harvard, but it’s still nothing to boast about. The state Department of Health sent out information on the subject, and we duly researched and wrote about it for a client. As I was working on this, I couldn’t help but think about the sources of medical misinformation on the web.

Mumps has become a rare disease in the U.S., thanks to the MMR vaccine. Northwest Arkansas has an unusual number of families that avoid vaccinations for “philosophical reasons,” as the Department of Health diplomatically describes it. With mumps breaking out in schools, the kids who are not vaccinated are being sent home for the duration. Those who have no medical reason to avoid vaccination have the option to go get their MMR vaccine and get back into the classroom immediately.

Local news sources are trying to get this information out in a respectful way, and in some cases they’re not being as clear as they might. The mumps outbreak, like the measles outbreak from a few years back, is almost certainly the result of unvaccinated kids bringing the disease back with them from summer vacations. All remaining unvaccinated kids are being sent home whether they have symptoms of the mumps are not — for their own protection. The herd effect protects the unvaccinated… but only until the disease shows up in the community.

But comments at news reports seize on the fact that some unvaccinated kids haven’t yet caught the mumps. They’re guessing that the kids with the mumps are kids who’ve been vaccinated. They’re concluding that vaccinated kids are in danger of mumps while unvaccinated kids are not. They’re encouraging one another in their online conversations and constructing an alternate narrative based on their misunderstanding of the facts.

It was mind boggling for me to see this taking place as I worked on the article. We don’t usually get to see the beginning of this kind of thing. I expect that in the future anti-vaccination communities will bring up the case of Springdale, Arkansas, where vaccinated schoolchildren caught mumps and unvaccinated kids did not. They will not be bothered by the fact that this claim is false, because falsehoods travel just as fast as facts online.

Medical misinformation can spread just as quickly as celebrity gossip, because people get emotional about it. I can get pretty emotional about vaccinations myself. But people who take a position that is contrary to the evidence are relying on emotions, and they have to seize on any misinterpretation they can to keep their confidence in their position.

Add misleading headlines and a general lack of scientific knowledge, and you have a recipe for medical misinformation.

What can you do?

First, get the facts out. Responding to medical misinformation with medical information is the best solution. Use your blog, your social media, and statements to the press to respond to the misinformation your patients will be facing.

Here are some types of content we produce in these cases:

  • Clear, simple, fact filled statements that make the confusing issues more clear
  • Direct — but respectful — responses to misinformation, linking to the articles in question
  • Research roundups on controversial and confusing topics
  • Clear statements of the positions taken by our clients
  • Balanced reporting where reasonable controversy exists
  • Historical examination of settled controversies
  • Infographics that clearly show the key numbers in cases where data may be hard to understand

Then create PDFs of your online articles and infographics. Pass them out to patients, use them as posters, and share them in your social media as often as needed to help clarify the issue.

Obviously, this will be most effective if you already have established online authority. Use your thought leadership in your community to accomplish this, along with thoughtful SEO strategy. Develop your online authority now and you’ll be ready for the next onslaught of medical misinformation in your community.






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