The best way to fight misinformation in health care


Fake news is a term that’s become notorious over the last couple of years. For notorious reasons perhaps. But there’s actually another serious arena where there is inadvertently an awful lot of “fake news” on a daily basis. And that is, well you guessed it: in health care throughout our nation’s hospitals and offices!

Let me explain, and I suspect anyone who works in health care will be familiar with the scenario. A physician or nurse assumes care of a new patient and a huge amount of information is thrown their way. They have “coronary artery disease,” they “drink five beers a day,” they “take a steroid pill every day,” they “will be discharged to rehabilitation.” All sounds like very serious stuff. However, in years of being a practicing physician, there is one rule I always follow: Take everything with a pinch of salt until you actually sit down and talk directly with the patient.

I have written a lot about the problems that electronic medical records have caused at the frontlines of health care. I am not going to make this another rant on the topic. However, I will say this: information technology is currently the number one reason for the propagation of fake news in health care. And this has serious implications for patients — who must always be sure to double check that their physician is aware of their accurate history. God knows what is in the computer and what old information is still being banded around about you! Physicians, for our part, are sadly fast losing the art of simply talking with our patients. No matter where technology takes us, there’s no substitute for this.

I used to be heavily involved in educating residents and medical students, before I had to cut back over the last couple of years owing to my other commitments. I recall several situations, that I would hazard a bet take place every day in our teaching hospitals. A classic example went something like this (and I usually just let the situation unfold before I respond in a tongue-in-cheek way): I am the teaching attending and we are huddled around a computer. After a result comes back, the residents start debating what antibiotic to put the patient on. They had information that the patient was “allergic to a couple of major antibiotics.” This had come from the computer and from their printed piece of paper.

Here’s a group of young intelligent doctors and medical students. They brainstorm and it’s clear our choices are limited. I listened to them, and finally said: “You know what, we are about 30 feet away from the patient’s room. Have any of you actually gone in to talk to the patient about their allergy history and confirm what really happened?” Sure enough, nobody has! That was perhaps all too much work and common sense (I say in a semi-derogatory but mentor-like way). When I send one of them in to go and confirm with a face-to-face conversation — turns out that none of the antibiotics were true allergies, and we were fine starting one of them. I’ve seen this happen more times than I can even remember. There are countless other examples I can also recall: whether the patient is or isn’t a drinker, whether they cut their pill in half, whether they did or didn’t have a flu vaccination. So much fake news all around!

It is my firm belief, that misinformation in health care, especially in the age of electronic medical records, is dangerous. The only sure fire way to combat all this — whether you are a doctor, nurse, or even a patient — is to communicate directly the good old-fashioned way and not believe what you hear until you diligently confirm it yourself.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author. He is the founder, DocSpeak Communications and co-founder, DocsDox. He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

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