Around 4 billion internet users worldwide look-up for health-related information, without knowing its reliability and authenticity. Almost 90% of older adults use social media not only to seek healthcare information but also post it for others. 

While many healthcare professionals do maintain their social media networks with valid information, myriad misleading facts are also easily available online, carrying their own dangers. Let’s look at some of these. 

Danger #1 – Difficult to identify the authenticity 

A lot of healthcare information available online can be inaccurate, biased, and moreover, outdated. Not every healthcare news and updates over the internet carry the same weight or credibility. 

Some of the top online sources of misleading medical information are:

  • DisturbMeNot
  • David Gorski, MD, Ph.D. (Twitter)
  • The Child Repair Guide with Dr. Steve Silvestro
  • OneZero: Doctors Are Braving Social Media to Battle Medical Misinformation
  • End Preeclampsia 

Although the information might be coming from sources like alternative medical advocates, hospitals and medical groups, professional organizations, research institutes, etc., one cannot really rely on their authenticity.

Danger #2 – Self-diagnosis through misleading online results

The internet can be helpful in the identification of potential medical conditions by researching certain symptoms but information from untrustworthy sources, as mentioned above, can be dangerous. Hence, proceeding with self-diagnosis and self-treatment plans based on such information can have adverse effects. 

Danger #3 – Risks of unnecessary anxiety 

A mere search for nausea, flu, sore joints, etc. can yield dozens of results varying from causes and symptoms, to diagnoses, and even life-threatening conditions. Various symptom checkers online often result in increased fear and anxiety about the conditions. As anxiety and medical conditions have a correlation, increased anxiety can worsen the conditions. 

Let’s also look at how rumors and misinformation about Ebola stirred a panic worldwide.

Case Study: Ebola outbreak of 2014 via social media 

HealthMap, a website that offers real-time data on infectious diseases to health institutions, was the first one to detect Ebola in 2014. The news of the epidemic outbreak terrorized everyone worldwide with rumors and misinformation through social networks. Moreover, social networks also provided fake treatments along with fake stories being circulated via SMS and other messaging apps. 

Such fatal rumors and misleading facts can be averted if healthcare professionals and organizations work together to make the internet a better source for correct information by:

  • Sharing valid, valuable, and easily understandable content for general public awareness regarding possible threats of misleading health facts online
  • Creating a favorable environment to encourage patient-doctor communication by way of comments, feedback, forums, etc. 
  • Ensuring every shared content follows the guidelines as laid by HIPAA and FDA
  • Staying secure by implementing security guidelines across all social media channels

While social media has brought in new opportunities for healthcare organizations to share important health information with the public, the dangers of misinformation need to be tackled by keeping a fine balance between vigilance and anxiety, thus leading to an ecosystem of responsible information dissemination.