Health misinformation: How to tell right from wrong online

The FDA commissioner recently said health misinformation is contributing to a shorter life expectancy. Here are tips on finding accurate information.
Posted at 1:44 PM, Apr 20, 2023

Health misinformation could be one reason we are living shorter lives.

At least, that’s what the FDA commissioner said earlier this month. Robert Califf said Americans live three to five years less than citizens of other high-income countries, and the spread of false information may be partly to blame.

Experts say social media and the internet are some of the main drivers.

Life expectancy in the U.S. declined nearly a year from 2020 to 2021 to 76.1 years, according to the CDC.

“When we use social media in place of more credible sources, it can ultimately result in detrimental outcomes to the person who is reading it,” said Dr. Andrea Anderson, a family physician and senior medical education consultant with the Association of American Medical Colleges.

According to a recent survey by OnePoll for Bayer Aspirin, about 2 in 5 people have used information found online instead of visiting their doctor when looking for health advice.

“I don't think it’s wrong to get information, I just think that it should also be verified or vetted against a credible source like your doctor,” Dr. Anderson said.

“Some of it is misinformation, some of it is disinformation, some of it is people getting stuff wrong,” said Joanne Kenen, an assistant lecturer and journalist in residence at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“It’s not a really new phenomenon; the volume and intensity is the new phenomenon,” she said.

study published in the National Library of Medicine in 2021 found “the prevalence of health misinformation was the highest on Twitter and on issues related to smoking products and drugs. However, misinformation on major public health issues, such as vaccines and diseases, was also high.”

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So how can you make sure what you’re seeing online is accurate?

“Look at the source. Is it something you've heard of before? Do you see it elsewhere?” Kenen said.

You can also check the CDC’s website or your local health department’s website to verify statements and claims you see online.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s office also has a full document on health misinformation and how to combat it.

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