Doctors should fight fake health news at the checkout aisle

I see them every time I wait in the inescapably long lines at the grocery store. They’re offering me so much. Fat-melting foods that “work like gastric bypass.” Sleep masks that prevent breast cancer. One day diets. And, of course, the perennial “medical miracles.” All these revelations can be mine with a simple magazine purchase.

It’s easy to dismiss the medical advice being propagated through the supermarket checkout aisle. Who would take health advice from a magazine sitting next to a box of Snickers and the National Enquirer? This visceral elitism, however, is causing doctors and scientists to miss out on a powerful avenue for improving people’s health. Mainstream health advice was “fake news” before it had a name.

One reason fake health news has remained rampant is because doctors have often refused to engage with the popular press, except for the few seeking profit. When we reject bringing our ideas to the most unpretentious of media outlets, then only mercenaries like Drs. Mehmet Oz and Andrew Weil adorn the covers of these rags. We cannot always stop quackery from being disseminated, but we can drown it out with accurate and nuanced information.

So here’s a challenge for my scientific and medical colleagues: publish your next article in Woman’s World. Or maybe in Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, or Glamour. These magazines, and others like them, have circulations of over 1 million readers. There is a constant hunger in the popular press for health information, yet we are ceding the public conversation to people without the appropriate experience and intentions.

University press offices have started to aggressively “fill the gap” in health news. However, relying only on press offices to promote our work to the public allows these large organizations to prioritize their own success and aggrandizement above the public’s health. Effusive reports about preliminary trials and mouse studies contribute to “fake news” rather than counter it.

Senior professionals already consider it a feather in their cap to write for smart outlets like The New York Times or The Atlantic, but they protest less pompous publications. It is an ineffective gambit to bet that not working with the mass media will solve the health sensationalism problem better than working with them. If doctors think holding our expertise hostage will make the media eventually come to us on our terms, centuries of bad health news should prove that wrong.

This exercise offers us valuable practice in communicating our ideas not just to the people who study them but to the patients and citizens who will be directly affected by them. Everyday people crave medical information and use the convenience of the popular media to receive it. Too many people today still lack the access and financial capacity to receive all the medical care and education they need. Too many health resources target wealthy, educated patients, rather than reaching out to every community that needs this knowledge. There may even be a hint of sexism at our dismissal of “women’s” magazines as an influential medium for the public good. The intelligentsia’s surprise at Teen Vogue’s quality reporting is emblematic of this mild chauvinism.

Since academics, doctors, and other professionals still equate exclusivity with value, I am challenging us to try populism on for size.

I call this a challenge because I recognize it’s not an easy transition from journal to supermarket broadsheet. These magazines frequently promote sensational and unproven health information, and we don’t want our ideas to be similarly stigmatized. We have a situation right out of a game theory textbook: we would all benefit from improving the health information in the popular media, but no one wants to take the risk first. We may be more effective if we take the plunge together.

One barrier is that the style and connections required for mass media publishing are separate from those needed for academic publishing. It can be scary to start from square one. There have been some admirable attempts to help doctors and academics break into this world. The OpEd Project supports academics who want to publish in the mainstream media. The Conversation publishes syndicated articles by academics. For years, Health News Review has been taking the mainstream media to task for poor health reporting. We need all the support we can get as we strive to communicate our ideas in an appealing, clear way.

Let’s start the long process of cultivating relationships with publications that have not had the benefit of input from doctors and scientists with integrity. If you’ve ever laughed at the latest Dr. Oz gimmick, then this challenge is for you. In this era of “fake news,” we can improve the public’s health by asking every doctor and scientist to submit one article or idea to a mainstream publication this year.

As we take on more responsibility, we must also hold the mass media to a higher standard by reaching out to them when health falsehoods are spread. We can have a tremendous impact if we start to think beyond impact factors.

Benjamin Mazer is a pathology resident and can be reached on Twitter at @BenMazer or at his self-titled site, Benjamin Mazer, MD, MBA. A version of this article appeared in the Health Care Blog.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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