Avoiding the Rose-Tinted Glasses in Healthcare
Beware of sensationalism and health misinformation
By Erin Jackson
Navigating the sea of new health information is an exhausting but necessary endeavor for physical therapists seeking to stay on the cutting edge of science, even more so if the information is obtained online.
There is some comfort when you read a research-based, peer-reviewed journal and know that the information in the article is reliable. By contrast, scrolling through pages of headlines or coming across information through Twitter, TikTok, or YouTube as it appears on your personalized feed lacks that level of reliability. Still, the content may draw your attention, and despite knowing that it’s not necessarily reliable information, you might find yourself believing the information to be true. It happens to us all.
It is essential to your practice and professional integrity that you understand that the information you get from these unreliable sources might be health misinformation. Health misinformation is adequately defined as “a health-related claim of fact that is currently false due to a lack of scientific evidence.”1 When you view non-scientific or research-based content related to your practice online, it is safe to assume that it might contain health misinformation.
To prevent the spread of misinformation as a professional, you should avoid sharing this type of content without verifying its accuracy (and encourage your peers to do the same). To emphasize the dangers of misinformation: MIT researchers have found that false statements and false conclusions spread much faster and reach far more people than the truth.2 The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the dangers of prevalent health misinformation.
So, how can you identify it and prevent it?
STEP 1 – LOOK FOR COMMON MARKERS OF SENSATIONALISM
Much information online is produced with bias, exaggeration, and sensationalism. Today’s informational outlets go hand-in-hand with health misinformation because they often misrepresent researched data or take an approach that discounts the science altogether. Think back to news headlines and social media posts expressing various renditions of statements like, “A cure for COVID-19 has been discovered” or “The pandemic has lifted HIPAA requirements.” These are just a few recent examples of sensationalism and health misinformation at play. Neither statement is accurate, and both examples use a variety of misrepresentations to reach their conclusion.
When consuming non-research-based content, you should approach it with healthy skepticism. If something appears too good to be true, it probably is. Consider headlines and hyperlinks to content that entices you to click, but you don’t know how to feel about it. For example, “Five secrets to a highly profitable physical therapy practice.” These types of links are known as clickbait. They sensationalize something that may be very simple or slightly misinterpreted to get individuals to follow the link and read the content, even if the substance is common sense. This is overwhelmingly common in social media posts.
Part of the appeal of social media is the ease associated with sharing opinions and experiences with your peers. It is, for many, a curated bubble of similar-minded individuals whom you trust to tell you about their lives or the world around you without lying. However, it is also a breeding ground for deceit. In 2016, Purdue researchers reported that a key motivation for lying online was to exaggerate or idealize self-presentation to look better for others.3 That includes spreading their view on how a practice should operate and how they handle treating patients, even if it goes against accepted research. It may seem that the treatment method is working; nonetheless the danger here lies in the fact that it is an anecdotal experience and is not coupled with accepted research.
As you can probably tell, the spread of health misinformation can be a subtle process. Many of our first thoughts may be to share the experience described above without doing further research. If you go through with that thought, you have contributed to health misinformation. Exaggerated or biased storytelling on social media is a form of sensationalism. An easy way to engage your healthy skepticism is to recognize that your peers speak from personal experience. This applies to all social media. Using your knowledge that anecdotal experiences are not researched truths will significantly limit your vulnerability to misinformation and further prevent its spread.
STEP 2 – DO NOT SHARE THE INFORMATION UNTIL YOU CONFIRM ITS CREDIBILITY
Once you have identified that an article or other social media content is not based on research, the hardest part is done. The next step is not to share that content, which could be its end. As a physical therapist, you have an obligation to treat your patients according to best practices confirmed through research by professional colleagues. In pursuing that obligation, it is important that a patient who seeks a non-traditional or professionally accepted treatment method is educated on why specific methods are not practiced. Simply telling them is likely not sufficient.
Even in circumstances where you give your patient a good reason, they may still find your answer disappointing or unhelpful. In such cases, analyzing their source for credibility is likely worthwhile. Professional curiosity generally leads to growth, with the additional benefit of building trust with your patients. If it turns out the study is new and novel — and escaped your radar — if it is within your capability as a physical therapist, there is merit to adopting the method into your existing practice if the research is sound. Incorporating independent research and new methodologies into your existing practice increases your appeal to more potential patients while simultaneously lowering your risk of professional discipline.
Physical therapists are subject to regulations in every state in the United States. These regulations typically come from licensing boards, professional practice laws, and established codes of conduct that each licensee is obligated to uphold. Each state enforces its laws with slight variation, yet a common thread among them all is that physical therapists must conduct themselves professionally.
The threat of health misinformation and the spread of sensationalism within the profession of physical therapy is a genuine concern. Utilizing unproven treatment methods or sharing sensationalist and exaggerated content may seem harmless on the surface because no injury has occurred; nevertheless, a regulator may see that same act as a ticking time bomb. It is also highly probable that it will result in reputational damage. The spread of health misinformation, especially when there is a possibility of harm to the patient, can lead to a myriad of professional disciplines. In many circumstances, spreading health misinformation may lead to fines and suspension or revocation of your licensure.
Erin’s law clerk, Edwin Caro, contributed to this article.
1Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou et al. “Addressing Health-Related Misinformation on Social Media.” JAMA. 2018;320(December):2417.
2Soroush Vosoughi et al. The Spread of True and False News Online. 2018;359:1146-1147.
3Michelle Drouin et al. Why Do People Lie Online? “Because Everyone Lies on the Internet”. 64 Comput Human Behav. 2016;64:134,141.
Erin Jackson is a healthcare attorney and the firmwide managing partner of Jackson LLP Healthcare Lawyers. Physical therapy’s transformative effect in Erin’s life has been featured on the APTA’s Moving Forward Radio. Erin enjoys that her role as a healthcare attorney allows her to support and counsel physical therapists on their own journeys of private practice ownership.