Much of the discussion surrounding the presidential election this year focused on fake news. There were countless stories in newspapers and on television news shows about these obviously biased and fictitious posts that might have affected the outcome of the election. I could not help thinking during this campaign season that if you think fake news is bad for politics, you should try being a physician.
As physicians, we are on the front line in the fight against fake news and deal with the fall out on a regular basis. This is nothing new, especially for primary care doctors like family physicians, internists, and pediatricians who have to deal with volumes of fake news within the limited amount of time they actually have with a patient.
Physicians are always trying disprove fake news with patients. We talk about the limited benefits of numerous vitamin supplements in the face of countless publications and marketing efforts that do not have to be evaluated by the FDA. Red yeast rice is not equivalent to statins for preventing heart disease. Gingko biloba will not treat dementia, no matter how organic or pure it is, no matter how many people write about its effectiveness.
A website recently touted the 25 beneficial uses of apple cider vinegar. This list included treatments for acne, bad breath, underarm and foot odor, to kill bacteria causing a sore throat, prevent diabetes, lower cholesterol, improve digestion and remove warts. But wait there’s more! Apple cider vinegar can give you healthier hair, whiter teeth and even better-tasting barbecue sauce. This is in addition to its ability to be a nontoxic cleaner for your kitchen and a weed killer for your garden. This is a list of pure conjecture passed off as facts, and people believe it. Even the comments section of the article has readers saying “good to know.”
I have had several patients tell me about all the health benefits of vanadyl sulfate. Specifically, they have stopped their medications for diabetes because of everything they have read about vanadyl. Each patient’s course plays out the same way: these patients research for information, completely buy into this natural supplement, stop their medications and then their A1c goes up dramatically. But “Americas most trusted wellness doctor” says it works and is willing to sell the supplements to you as well.
The most egregious and widespread item of fake medical news involves vaccines. From causing autism to inciting sexual behavior, decades of fake medical news about vaccines exist. Many times doctors are seen as complicit in pushing this harm on people. A quick look at Twitter for #vaccines, and the news of vaccination harms is overwhelming.
The whole fake news complex plays on the vulnerabilities of those searching for the information in the first place, looking for what mainstream media or money-loving, golf-playing doctors won’t really tell you. You are being held down or missing out on critical information — information someone else doesn’t want you to know. If you can get this information, everything will be better — your life, your health, your economy, your country.
As a physician, I try to be a steward of medical information. I want my patients to seek out good quality medical information on their own. I steer them to reputable websites and gently dismiss information from sources I do not trust.
So fake news may have negatively affected the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but fake news affects every clinic and hospital in America every day. This is not to say that political news is more or less important than medical information or that either is more susceptible to the fake news problem. Inaccurate statements presented as facts should always be challenged, and the medical community has a unique and difficult responsibility to engage it.