Twitter can spread inaccurate medical information

As more patients find themselves on Twitter, it’s concerning the amount of medical misinformation that they can be exposed to.

Now, in a study from the American Journal of Infection Control, we have some data to back up that assertion.

Over a 4-month period in 2009, hundreds of Twitter users posted inaccurate antibiotic information, which, in turn, was re-tweeted to millions.

According to the study’s author, “”When we looked at tweets… we found that there are some basic categories like general mentioning of antibiotics or complaints about side effects and things like that, but there was also a category that was pretty interesting where people were indicating misuse or misunderstanding of antibiotics.”

Although the number of Tweets that contained misinformation was small, estimated to be about 2%, that still is enough to be transmitted to tens of thousands of patients.

That’s a major reason why medical professionals need to become more active on Twitter and Facebook. Not to give personal health advice, of course, but to “flood the web” with legitimate health information, and to provide patients with reputable medical sources.

Patients are increasingly turning to the web for medical advice, whether doctors like it or not. It’s up to us to provide much needed online guidance.

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  • Phil Baumann

    Fervently agree that this is all the more reason for professionals and organizations to become web literate and very active online.

    Also, this is something the FDA and other regulatory bodies must come to grips with and recognize that the organizations they regulate need to have the reasonable and safe freedoms to interact with their communities.


  • Josue Diaz

    I agree with Phil. It’s quite similar to parents having not a clue about what their children are using in terms of various social media sites because they refuse to understand and/or believe it’s some sort of fad.
    Twitter & facebook are the tools de jour, but the point is the that the Internet is a vast playground and professionals/FDA/reg bodies are doing themselves a great disservice by not interacting and quickly debunking much of the information that people are absorbing on a daily basis.

    The Internet cannot be policed in a full-proof manner, but having an active and compelling presence is essential in 2010.

    Great topic.

  • Jill of All Trades, MD

    Twitter and Facebook may be spreading inaccurate medical info, but it’s also important to remember that the same goes for television and magazines. Advertisements are often one-sided, and are trying to “sell” you something when it gets down to it. When reading magazine articles in regards to a medical or health topic, please always look to see who is writing the story. It is often someone without a health degree. They may very well be reliable sources, but it’s good to keep that in mind. Just a thought.

  • Dr. Susan Dorfman

    The growing use of medical websites to obtain health care offers varying benefits to consumers that include convenience and access. It is important to consider that this health care revolution has also increased concerns that consumers may expose themselves to inaccurate information or endangerment, particularly as a result of sites used for fraudulent purposes. In fact, studies have shown that information leading to websites selling counterfeit medicine (and often with a simple way to by-pass official physician prescription requirements) is a major threat to global health and is a threat to consumers who make the decision to self-treat after an initial web-based self- or ecommunity diagnosis.

    So here is the interesting impact… Social learning theory states that the chance that a person will engage in particular behaviors is a result of that person’s anticipation that such actions will generate specific outcomes as well as the perceived value of the resulting reinforcement. This can be evidenced in a 2009 study demonstrating that a considerate portion of consumers who were actively using the Internet to seek out health information were going against the recommendations of their health care providers and engaging in alternative treatment strategies such as discontinuation or refusal of treatment. The same study also showed that these same users demonstrated greater reliance on social media and web-based community support, experienced a poorer quality of life, and reported to have higher “self-efficacy.”

    Self-efficacy, a central part of social learning theory, represents a person’s judgment of their own ability to perform activities resulting in specific outcomes. According to social learning theory, awareness is influenced by the informative function of modeling and people are more likely to adopt modeled behavior if it results in outcomes they value. As such, self-efficacy can occur as a result of personal experience or from witnessing the successes of others (through social media) and believing that they are capable of achieving the same outcomes and successes. This subjective determination of one’s abilities is also referred to as perception of control. The more a person believes he or she is in control of a situation, the more likely they are to engage in that behavior. Ultimately, having too high of an estimate in one’s beliefs could cause physical injury.

    With all that said, predicting and evaluating the overall safety, effectiveness, and efficacy of consumer Internet use for health information is difficult, and further research is needed to explore how this information influences the health care decision-making of consumers of informational sites, blogs and social communities; and how all this affects their health outcomes. Based on the challenges and opportunities presented by healthcare experts in my study (available on, expert panelists agree that health care professionals must play an active role in web-based health and in guiding patients to reliable web-based health information. High consensus showed that on-line access to certified health care professionals would be of benefit to consumers, and that it is critical for health professionals to develop informed health consumers who know where to look for credible health information. The majority also agreed that while such engagement strategies are critical, they are also currently not reimbursed by a majority of health plans and would take time away from reimbursed patient care. It is time for change!

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