But make no mistake about it — fake news is not legitimate journalism. Its mission is not to inform, but instead to manipulate for marketing, political, economic or other purposes — without regard to any potentially harmful consequences.

Social media and other web-based media have become so pervasive and so influential, that a sudden steady blitz of fake medical news could potentially deceive and injure millions of people in one fell swoop.


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If one has any questions about how a simple piece of misleading information could have such far-reaching consequences, one need only to recall the Theranos story. 

Doctors nationwide were misled into believing that Theranos offered a breakthrough technology that could offer the same lab results, while requiring much less blood from patients. It proved to be bloody false!

With today’s fake news, the people most susceptible to injury could well be cancer patients desperately seeking a cure for a malignancy they were told was incurable; children whose parents believe they need to protect them from the “evils” of vaccination; or pain sufferers who cannot get relief from reputable sources.

Those who are vulnerable now could become even more vulnerable in the future, thanks to the unchecked proliferation of fake news.

For example, there is no credible scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. Yet there is a vociferous minority of misinformed individuals using social media to try to dissuade parents from getting their kids vaccinated.

And what about the patient with LDL levels through the roof and a strong family history of CHD who absolutely refuses to take a statin because he heard something awful about rhabdomyolysis on Facebook — even though millions of Americans take statins daily and only rarely is that adverse effect seen?

Today’s doctors and other clinicians depend on evidence-based medicine when diagnosing and treating their patients. But evidence-based medicine can be easily undermined by deliberately placed misinformation. Lies in the echo chamber of cyberspace can devour the truth like ravenous macrophages on a bulimic binge.

“This is a time of misinformation spreading like we’ve never seen in the past,” said Angela Johansson, DO, FACOP, a pediatrician in Surprise, Arizona.

“Our only real method for combating all the misinformation,” she advises, “is to develop a trusting relationship with patients and families and spend the time it takes to educate them on the issues they are facing.”

Engaging with patients online, as well as in person, may be one of the most effective ways for doctors to stop the potentially damaging effects of fake news.2

Just as reputable journalists and news organizations must fight tirelessly to vanquish the dark forces of fake news threatening the honor and integrity of their industry, so too must physicians fight fake news whenever and wherever they see it — to protect the health and well-being of their patients.

References

  1. Gottfried J and Shearer E. “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016.” Pew Research Center. Updated May 26, 2016. Available at: http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/. Accessed January 3, 2017.
  2. Kuhrt M. “Fake News Is Also a Problem for the Medical Community.” FierceHealthcare. UpdatedNovember 28, 2016. Available at: http://www.fiercehealthcare.com/practices/fake-news-a-problem-for-medical-community-too. Accessed January 3, 2017.

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