Fake news is also a problem for the medical community

Social media
The viral spread of low-quality medical information through popular social media outlets like Facebook could have negative effects.

The problems related to fake news and the viral spread of information online are as urgent in medicine as they are in politics, according to Robert Glatter, M.D.

Glatter warns in a column for Forbes that even a poorly crafted headline on a legitimate story can cause trouble, since many people fail to read beyond the headline of a viral story that shows up in their social media feeds. With fake or overstated medical news, the stakes can be very high.

“Such fake news—particularly if related to a communicable disease—may have negative effects on patients’ emotional and physical well being, and could even lead to suicidal ideation or suicide,” says Glatter.

While concerned physicians like Glatter emphasize the importance of reputable news sources relying on well-sourced, verifiable information, more and more patients turn to social media and other online resources of varying quality for medical advice.

In an interview with News-Medical.Net, Andrew Boyden of NPS MedicineWise in Australia cited a study of pregnant women seeking healthcare information from parenting groups on Facebook in which nearly one in five responses was inaccurate. The authors classified 2% of the responses as “potentially harmful” if those asking for advice followed it.

The more physicians become aware of this phenomenon, the more they can take action to do something about it, says Boyden, a general practitioner. He recommends doctors guide their patients toward reliable information, particularly when it comes to medications. “Ideally, everyone would seek information from a health professional who knows about you, your medical history and conditions, and any other medicines you might be taking,” he says.

Other research has suggested practices can take matters into their own hands and engage patients online themselves. Such efforts have particular potential for improving the information available to underserved communities, as FierceHealthcare has previously reported.