Thought Leadership

The Fight Against Health Misinformation: The Time Is Now

Stephanie Wierwille
By Stephanie Wierwille
posted Oct 23, 2020

With the spread of COVID-19 came the spread of health misinformation — faster and more furiously than ever before. We’ve seen false guidance about how to prevent the novel coronavirus, viral videos of physicians spreading misinformation, and untrue claims about how hospitals are handling it. And with the election less than 10 days away, the confusion about what’s true and what’s not has only heated up.

Health misinformation cannot be ignored. It can discourage people from taking public health guidance seriously, potentially leading to increased hospitalizations. It can prevent people from seeking the care they need. And it exposes a major gap in the American healthcare system that Paul Keckley identified over a year ago: a single source of truth. Health information is dispersed between the media, physicians, local hospitals, the CDC, NIH, and WHO, and because of social media — even individuals Americans. Because of these disparate sources of health information (some reliable and others, not-so-much), Americans are unsure where to turn for advice. More often than ever, the message shared between friends online is, “Trust no one. Form your own opinions. Take the advice that makes sense to you and aligns with your views. Do what feels right to you.” And while this is an approach that might work for some things, health guidance should not be one of them. 

Whose job is it anyway? Misinformation may seem like a big, complicated problem that can’t be solved. And in some ways, it is… Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube all struggle to address misinformation circulated on their social media platforms. Just last week, Facebook and Twitter took action on information shared by the president about the seriousness of COVID-19. As open-source platforms by definition, anyone is allowed to publish anything they’d like, be it true or not. This makes it incredibly difficult to define the appropriate balance of freedom of speech with the very real dangers posed by circulating inaccurate health guidance.

Often, misinformation is couched as a purely political challenge — or one for the press and social networks to solve. And some of it is. But health misinformation hits close to home for hospitals and health systems whose mission statements focus on helping their communities become healthier. A community can only be healthy if it has access to accurate, factual health information.

Throughout the last six months, we’ve charted the dramatic rise in trust in health systems and physicians through our COVID-19 research. At the same time, trust in the media and government continues to fall. With increased trust comes greater responsibility. The onus to provide factual, actionable health information doesn’t just fall on the CDC, WHO, or NIH. America’s hospitals, health systems, and physicians all have a significant part to play.

What can hospitals and health systems do? There are more than 6,000 hospitals in America. We’ve run the numbers: hospitals have the ability to reach more than 10% of the American population with their organic social media platforms alone. What if every hospital joined the fight against misinformation, creating a single source of truth in local communities and covering the Internet with health facts, not fiction?

Simple actions can go a long way. Taking on health misinformation may sound impossible, but it can start with simple steps. For example, hospitals and health systems can:

  • Share clear, easy-to-digest health facts through the system’s social media platforms.
  • Debunk common, circulating myths on a landing page.
  • Create a pilot program of five to ten physicians and developing social presences for each, positioning them as a voice of truth for the community.

Long-term efforts to combat misinformation could expand to bigger efforts:

  • Extend the pilot program by creating presences for each and every physician (managed centrally at first to ensure accuracy and adherence to HIPAA guidelines).
  • Expand PR programs to include ongoing fact-checking of health information for local media outlets.
  • Partner with social platforms like Facebook and Twitter to fact-check health information.

Not only do these efforts take steps to fight misinformation, but they also build long-term patient relationships both with the brand and individual physicians. If patients receive timely health facts from their current doctor on an ongoing basis, they may be less inclined to switch physicians, given the trust many have built.

Many of our health system marketing clients ask how they can start a movement in their local communities… this is what a movement looks like. Movements are about filling a critical and timely need. It’s about being a leader in something that matters, something that is community-first and not driven solely by financial incentives. By starting there, trust can be built for the long term.

And when it comes to combatting health misinformation, there’s no better or more urgent time to start than now