23 Aug 2019

Why doctors need to fight misinformation online

From Afternoons, 1:25 pm on 23 August 2019

The internet is a great place for information, but in this post-truth world how can you tell what's real and what's not?

When it comes to medicine or health, there's a vocal anti-science community online. Dr Ed Mariano from Stanford University believes physicians need to counteract this cacophony of fake news, by being active on social media.

Dr Mariano is in New Zealand to speak on this topic at the Anaesthesia Conference in Queenstown.

He tells Jesse Mulligan about some alternative medicine theories popping up online recently that have grabbed people’s attention.

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Photo: Photo /123RF

“One of the first ones that comes to mind is the company called Goop, headed by Gwyneth Paltrow, sometimes there’s therapies for patients who suffer from chronic conditions that may not have scientific studies and proven to actually have benefits.”

In an age where a lot of people look up health information online, he says he’s concerned about the dissemination of pseudo facts online that become hard to combat once they spread quickly.

One of the problems that adds to it, is that the medical and scientific communities have not yet embraced social media as much as they can, Dr Mariano says.

“They’re not able really to provide ways to inform the public in ways that they understand. So for example, we may publish a new research study but the words we use aren’t the word an average person can understand so that type of attention usually doesn’t last very long.”

Part of the strong belief people may have in false information that spreads online is the instinct to want to have hope, Dr Mariano says.

“I think is that it’s in our human nature, we want hope, we want to believe that there’s something that can cure [us] without a lot of side effects.

“At the same time, as researchers and scientists, on an everyday basis, we always sound the good and the bad with every medication and every therapy that we offer patients and that kind of weighing risks and benefits doesn’t occur outside of the scientific community.”

His message to doctors was to embrace other avenues of communication for the public, like social media which he views as a “curated learning community”.

“I think as scientists and physicians part of our vocation or calling is to really improve the health of the community and the only way to do that is to really speak in the language that people understand.”

While medical professions continue to be regarded highly in society, he says, that comes with a great deal of responsibility.

“I think in the past we’ve had the old attitudes of paternalistic medicine, which is that the physician is always right… have really gone away and now we really have to make decisions with our patients in a shared capacity.

“The only way to do that is to arm patients with information … and when they have questions about some of these therapies they read about online they have to feel comfortable going to a physician and asking about it and having a real discussion about why or why not it may make sense for them."