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Medical News: How To Tell The Fake From The Real

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Mahmoud Abudeif, Jan 6, 2020.

  1. Mahmoud Abudeif

    Mahmoud Abudeif Golden Member

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    The concept of “fake news"—as of late—seems to have taken on a life of its own. And while fake news has serious ramifications socially and politically, fake medical news can be even more damaging, with the potential to cause real, bodily harm.

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    Take—for instance—perhaps one of the most glaring examples of the damage that can be wrought by medical misinformation: the current measles outbreak.

    The idea that the MMR vaccination caused autism was based on a single, fraudulent study, which has long since been refuted and retracted. In its wake, no less than 17 much larger, well designed studies have proven that there is no link. Yet, activists, politicians, and celebrities seized the initial, now-debunked results with enthusiasm, and parents became increasingly hesitant and unwilling to vaccinate their children.

    We are currently experiencing the fall-out from this, with United States reporting the highest number of measles cases in 25 years. In fact, according to the CDC, from January 1 to December 5, 2019, 1,276 individual cases of measles have been confirmed in 31 states.

    And in light of the unprecedent access to information of all kinds that the Almighty Internet has bestowed on all of us, the problem of fake medical news has grown into a huge one.

    In his op-ed piece in the New York Times, Haider Warraich, MD, cardiologist, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC, wrote: “While misinformation has been the object of great attention in politics, medical misinformation might have an even greater body count. As is true with fake news in general, medical lies tend to spread further than truths on the internet—and they have very real repercussions.”

    Interestingly, his article is entitled “Dr. Google Is a Liar.” And perhaps even more interesting is its subhead: “Fake news threatens our democracy. Fake medical news threatens our lives.”

    But, what can be done to fight this problem? Dr. Warraich has a few ideas:

    “Silicon Valley needs to own this problem. I am not a free-speech lawyer, but when human health is at stake, perhaps search engines, social media platforms and websites should be held responsible for promoting or hosting fake information.

    “The scientific community needs to do its part to educate the public about key concepts in research, such as the difference between observational studies and higher-quality randomized trials. Transparency is paramount to maintaining the public’s trust…

    “Finally, journalists can do a better job of spreading accurate information. News sites are more likely to cover catchy observational studies than randomized controlled trials, perhaps because the latter are less likely to produce surprising results.”

    Fighting fake news

    What then, is the busy clinician to do in the fight to discern fake medical news from real news in his own reading and that of his patients? The answer is: arm yourself with the knowledge and tools to differentiate the fake from the real.

    To better understand fake news, researchers at Penn State University, University Park, PA, have narrowed down it down into seven categories: false news, polarized content, satire, misreporting, commentary, persuasive information, and citizen journalism.

    In their recent study, they found that real news has several characteristics that differentiate it from fake news. Your job, as physician, scholar, researcher, and simply, as a reader, is to learn these characteristics so you can better discern what is fake and what is real.

    Here are a few areas to look closely at any time you read something on the internet—especially medical or health-related content—other than a clinical trial.

    Title. Look at the headline and what it seems to want to do. Is it straightforward and factual? Does it promise something that is too good to be true? Because if it does, it probably is (too good to be true), and therefore, is fake.

    Author. Look for author specifics, as well as a way to contact him/her. Trust articles that include specific titles and a link to the author. Be wary of any that offer no author information, credentials, or links, email addresses, or other means to contact them directly.

    Content. When you are reading through anything, look for agreement between the headline and the content. If the content diverges greatly from the headline (and believe us, you’ll know within the first few paragraphs), it’s most likely that you’ve been pulled in by “click bait.” Also be wary of anything that includes patient testimonials.

    Writing. In distinguishing fake news from real news, the caliber of the writing is actually a great clue. Is the language too basic? Is the article filled with unsophisticated terms? Are there errors in subject/verb agreement and the use of past or present tense, or other grammatical no-no’s? If the answer is yes, get out of there and disregard anything you just read.

    Sources. Obviously, articles or communications from the CDC or Johns Hopkins University, for example, stand head and shoulders above anything on a “lay” website. But, that doesn’t mean that all non-medical websites contain inaccurate medical information. It's up to you to ferret out the good sites from the bad.

    Another good sign that you are reading content based on facts is the presence of links. In whatever medical news you happen to be reading, check for links to the source material used by the author. Look for at least one link to supporting data or studies. If there are no references, citations, or links within the text, what is written cannot be confirmed, and probably should be discounted.

    And finally…

    Another way to fight fake medical news is to refresh your knowledge of the various types of studies out there. Go back and review what comprises a meta-analysis, an observational study, a randomized controlled trial, a systematic review, or evidence-based practice. And then brush up on your knowledge of statistical significance.

    This will help you better judge the quality of the studies you read, the significance of the data they report, and the importance of the findings.

    Physicians play a key role in the battle against fake medical news. Know your part, know your science, and know how to discern the fake from the real. It’ll make for easier navigation of all the fake medical news out there—and stands to benefit not only you, but your patients as well.

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