The editors-in-chief of major cardiovascular journals—of both US and European societies—have come together to “sound the alarm” about the dangers of medical misinformation that has been disseminated through the internet, social media, and other platforms. They claim that this misinformation is dangerous because it leads to patients refusing medication, such as statins, that have documented life-saving benefits.
Joseph A Hill (Department of Medicine, University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, USA) and others write in Circulation and in several other international cardiovascular journals that medical misinformation “hyped through the internet, television, chat rooms, and social media” has caused many patients to think that the risks of statins are far worse than they actually are and, as a result, refuse to take the drugs. “Most patients do not recognise that the benefits of statin use are invisible (‘I didn’t have a heart attack or stroke this past year’) whereas the small and typically reversible risks (e.g. muscle pain) are readily apparent,” they add. The authors note that patients rejecting statins is just one example of the effects of medical misinformation, and that another is parents not letting their children be vaccinated following an infamous—and now widely discredited—paper that linked autism to the MMR vaccine.
Furthermore, Hill et al say that some celebrities, actors, activists, and politicians promote false or misleading medical ideas and claim “not uncommonly” there are people acting with “purely venal motives”. According to Hill et al, “the strident alarms” by well-known people “speaking in absolute terms” exacerbate the problem of medical misinformation because their words resonate better with the general public than the “nuanced voices” of scientists. The authors state that scientists “appropriately couch their statements in statistical terms, which may come across to the public as equivocation”.
Hill et al, therefore, have written their editorial to “sound the alarms that human lives are at stake” and call on the media to “do a better job” at avoiding sharing medical misinformation. “It is unacceptable to posit false equivalents in these discussions [such as the risks and benefits of statins], often done to foster debate and controversy. It is easy to find a rogue voice but inappropriate to suggest that this voice carries the same weight as that emerging from mainstream science,” they comment.
In particular, given misinformation tends to travels faster through social networks than does the truth, Hill et al write that the “purveyors of social media must be responsible for the content they disseminate” and it is no longer acceptable for these purveyors to “hide behind the cloak of the platform”. They explain that, as editors-in-chief, they “reach out to thought-leading experts to evaluate the veracity of each report” they receive and “challenge social media to do the same”—“to leverage the ready availability of science-conversant expertise before disseminating content that may not be reliable”.
“Without exaggeration, significant harm, to society and individuals, derives from the wanton spread of medical misinformation. It is high time that this stop, and we lay at the feet of the purveyors of the internet and social media content the responsibility to fix this,” Hill et al conclude.
Hill told Cardiovascular News: “The internet and social media platforms are replete with false information, which does real harm to individuals globally. We charge the purveyors of these media to take first steps in addressing this enormous problem, and we, in the academic medical community, stand ready to help.”
As well as being published in Circulation, the editorial was also published in the European Heart Journal, Journal of Electrocardiology, and the International Journal of Cardiology among others.