As inaccurate health claims spread across the internet, a new policy article published in the AMA Journal of Ethics calls for clinicians to clear up inaccurate information that patients may glean from the web.

Joel T Wu, MPH, MA, clinical ethics fellow at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in St. Paul and Jennifer B. McCormick, PhD, MPP, of the Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute in Hershey, Pennsylvania, detailed how patients who believe false information online can have significant negative affects on public health.

“Broad dissemination and consumption of false or misleading health information, amplified by the Internet, poses risks to public health and problems for both the health care enterprise and the government,” the investigators wrote. “Healthcare professionals have essential roles in helping patients and fellow citizens obtain reliable, evidence-based health information.”

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Even though this false information can cause negative consequences for public health, regulating those claims is a challenge. The government has a responsibility to provide general welfare to the public; however, it must also simultaneously protect free speech.

For example, groups that make unsubstantiated claims like “abortions lead to breast cancer” or “vaccines cause autism” are protected under the First Amendment.

“Government cannot be relied upon to resolve the problem of false health information found on the Internet,” the investigators wrote. “When patients express false or misinformed beliefs, it is professionally and ethically appropriate to attempt to correct and redirect the patients so that they can hopefully use evidence-based information to make an informed decision about their care.”

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Healthcare professionals can act as a valuable source for clearing up rumors both in and outside of their practices.


Wu JT, McCormick JB.  Why health professionals should speak out against false beliefs on the internet. AMA J Ethics. 2018;20(11):E1001-1112