Aspirus Weekly COVID-19 Media Report: Avoid Medical Misinformation

We are bombarded everyday with countless reports about new studies or the latest health information. It can be difficult to identify what is trustworthy.

Medical research is complex and often oversimplified when reported. People may not look past the headline of an article or encounter misleading information in comments sections.

A case study published in April 2021 by First Draft, a non-profit misinformation organization, found that up to 26 percent of comments on a news organization’s posts that featured the word “vaccine” contained misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic or vaccines.

Jacob Prunuske, MD, has been a physician for more than 20 years and has supervised Aspirus physician residents for the past six years. He says that being able to identify reliable sources is vital.

“There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet right now and there are ways of identifying it,” Dr. Prunuske said. “What are the credentials of who is providing the information? Does the information align with other sources? And what is the reputation of the source? Can you actually contact the organization or is it just some blog post?”

Additional changes to health and safety guidelines should be expected as we continue to learn more about COVID-19. But without sufficient communication that provides clarity and context, many people will have had trouble keeping up with changing knowledge and guidance.

“That’s how science works. Over time, we gather more data to make better decisions,” Dr. Prunuske said. “I think it’s important for all of us to stay up to date as information evolves.”

Medical misinformation has caused confusion and led people to decline COVID-19 vaccines, reject public health measures, and use unproven treatments. For example, a study published in the Nature Human Behavior journal showed that even brief exposure to COVID-19 vaccine misinformation made people less likely to want a COVID-19 vaccine.

This is especially true when people accept misinformation as fact because it confirms their existing beliefs or theories, commonly known as confirmation bias.

“We should be intentional about asking ourselves what biases we might have and how does it influence me reading these articles,” Dr. Prunuske said. “And being conscious and checking if I need to consider a different perspective.”

There are some things that individuals, families and communities can do to help stop the spread of medical misinformation.

  1. Learn how to identify and avoid sharing health misinformation.
    Verify accuracy of information by checking with trustworthy and credible sources. If you’re not sure, don’t share.

  2. Engage with your friends and family on the problem of health misinformation.
    If someone you care about has a misperception, you might be able to make inroads with them by first seeking to understand instead of passing judgment.

  3. Address health misinformation in your community. 
    Work with schools, community groups such as churches and parent-teacher associations, and trusted leaders such as educators and health care professionals to develop local strategies against misinformation.

“I think the most important thing is to be curious, be inquisitive, be willing to change your views based on data and science,” Dr. Prunuske said. “And then check in with your physician or a public health professional to see if you’re heading down the right path.”

Aspirus Health recommends people receive their health information from their local health care providers, reputable news sources and agencies devoted to public health such as state and local health departments, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among others.