The Dangers of Health Misinformation Online: How to Combat the Infodemic

In Part One of The Dangers of Health Misinformation Online we discussed the evolution of the healthcare infodemic and how it impacts dentistry. In Part Two, we'll review the ways dental professionals can effectively combat healthcare misinformation.

By Genni Burkhart

One doesn't have to look hard to find misinformation online. To say it's proliferated since the COVID-19 pandemic is an understatement. Amid growing concern over how rapidly misinformation is spreading online, Americans have opened up to the idea of the U.S. government stepping in to regulate misinformation that's surged since the COVID-19 pandemic began. As a result, a majority of people now favor technology companies taking more action, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

2021 Pew Research also shows that adults who want freedom of information protected at "all costs" –even misinformation – has decreased from 58 percent to 50 percent since 2018.

This rising threat has led the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations (UN), and the US Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy to issue formal warnings. It's also motivated some scientists and physicians to publish open letters on the dangers of health misinformation online and work together to combat the healthcare infodemic.

COVID Ruins Everything

People are overwhelmed with too much information. From never-ending breaking news to continuously evolving public health guidance, to research (not all legitimate), endless opinions, rumors, myths, and conspiracies, it's information gluttony and much of it falls under the category of misinformation. (That's information determined to be fake, inaccurate, or purposefully misleading according to the most credible evidence available at the time.) To make matters worse, the pandemic heightened people’s fears and increased mistrust in public institutions such as healthcare and government.

The pandemic didn't start the infodemic, but it certainly made it worse.

Global Efforts to Combat the Infodemic

The COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to nearly 90,000 published papers about the virus between the start of the pandemic and October 2020. Unfortunately, along with quality clinical research also came rampant misinformation, which the WHO has defined as an “infodemic.”

The Mercury Project, a three-year global research consortium launched by the independent, international, nonprofit organization the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), is building an evidence-based infodemic response effort through behavioral science that's meant to benefit current and future public health emergencies. With funding support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, this project will support research that evaluates the impacts of "...mis- and disinformation on online and offline health, economic, and social outcomes in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, including estimating the differential impacts across sociodemographic groups and quantifying the global costs of those impacts." (“Combatting Health Misinformation and Disinformation ...”)

The Mercury Project will share the results of this research with grantees and other invited organizations for the purpose of policy creation, thereby enabling effective regulatory responses to public health emergencies. The primary purpose of this consortium is to provide valuable information that can serve as a foundation for "data-driven policy and regulatory interventions enabling the creation of a healthier information environment."

What You Can Do Right Now

When we look at active measures to counter health misinformation on a smaller scale, dentists and oral health professionals are well-suited to counter the infodemic in a few different ways. They include:

  • Engage with patients. Dentists and dental hygienists are in a position of trust with patients. Take time at each visit to listen to patients and understand what motivates their oral health decisions. When discussing concerns with patients be sure to use accessible language and respectfully engage with them to reinforce the importance of medically proven advice over misinformation.
  • Have a social media strategy. Since so much misinformation is on social media, meet it where it's at. Dentists can use their social media presence to create a professional space where patients can find truthful information to counter dangerous trends and misinformation online. Include peer-reviewed studies and research that promotes proven, safe, and reliable oral healthcare tips and recommendations on the various social media platforms you share with patients.
  • Connect with your community. Dentists can connect with other clinicians and organizations in their communities to develop accurate public health messages. By connecting with the community, oral healthcare professionals can bring awareness of health misinformation to schools, social events, public and private organizations – with the purpose of promoting scientific, fact-driven community health initiatives.
  • Understand your patients’ social styles. There's a wonderful article on how to best approach patients as individuals, as every patient has a unique set of priorities and background. This article does a great job of explaining how the various social styles of patients impact their treatment acceptance, which can come into great use when combating oral health misinformation.

In Conclusion

When we look at health misinformation for exactly what it is – a serious threat to oral healthcare and the well-being of patients – it's easy to see why leading public health organizations and the U.S. Surgeon General have deemed this an infodemic. As the current pandemic continues to evolve, we're reminded that there are no guarantees a public health crisis won't happen again – or when COVID-19 will decisively become an endemic.

If health misinformation is going to be effectively fought now and, in the future, a better understanding of human behavior, such as the work of The Mercury Project, is imperative. Thought must be given to patient behavior by dentists and oral hygienists looking to combat the healthcare infodemic. From social media engagement to community involvement, the greatest impact dental professionals can make is by listening to patients and learning how to best communicate honest, reliable, oral healthcare information in person and online.

It's become far too easy for patients to find misinformation regarding their oral health – as dentists, make it easier for them to find the truth.


Author: With over 12 years as a published journalist, editor, and writer Genni Burkhart’s career has spanned politics, healthcare, law, business finance, technology, and news. She resides on the western shores of the idyllic Puget Sound where she works as the Editor in Chief for the Incisor at DOCS Education out of Seattle, WA.

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