On average, we spend nearly two and a half hours on social media each day. These platforms have become our main source for staying up to date, with a Pew Research survey estimating that 62% of U.S. adults reference social media as their means of staying informed. The way we use social media to stay current comes in many different forms, from articles and videos posted directly by news organizations, to paid promotions, to shares and posts by people we follow. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, our exposure to a constant stream of shares and posts influences how we perceive the world.
One attractive aspect of social media is that anyone can post anything. There is no limit to what people can create and post, which opens a door to a darker side of social media; to the fabrication of claims, ideas, and experiences.
The MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy Research Brief found that false news is appealing news. False news stories are 70% more likely to be shared and spread three times as fast compared to true stories. But why do fake stories spread faster? The humbling answer is our own hubris: We are attracted to stories and information that surprise us, that are new and exciting, that stimulate our brain and encourage us to share with others who need to see it too. If anything, fake news stories have become our genre du jour, our modern-day fiction novel that keeps us clicking on the next page.
One subgenre in the fake news section that we cannot keep ourselves from visiting is health care. Patients are no longer content with being passive consumers of health information. They want to play an active role in their own health and the health of others, and their main vehicle for delivering that information is social media.
At times, social media can be a harbinger for good — think of GoFundMe pages, online support groups and heartwarming stories about overcoming a disease. But the spread of false claims and fake news can have damaging effects on patients’ health, their relationship with doctors, and the very foundation of our health care system.
One study, from doctors at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, found that the overall quality of health information shared on social media was poor and difficult to regulate. Even more, the spread of poor information and misinformation can damage patients’ trust in their physicians, which can be detrimental to their health. The American Heart Association found that physicians are encountering more patients who are hesitant to start lifesaving medication, such as those for high cholesterol, and are instead opting for alternative, holistic treatments — or forgoing treatment altogether — because of something they read or watched online.
And while many people believe they would be able to spot a fake article, and claim to only share articles that are truthful, they are misguided. A recent study in Health Policy and Technology found that nearly half of the links related to health care contained false text, and these were more likely to be shared by users with limited medical knowledge. In addition, these articles contained information that lacked quality and reliability, often placing emphasis on individual stories and anecdotal reports containing shock value rather than facts and statistics.
These individual stories become especially important when patients take to social media to disclose where they were treated and who treated them. While the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act protects patients against the unlawful disclosure of their medical information or identity, there is no reciprocity for health care workers.
If patients share experiences they’ve had with a physician that includes false or exaggerated claims about the way they were treated, the physician cannot rebuke or defend against their comments. Physicians cannot even acknowledge they treated their patients, as that would violate HIPAA and open the door to legal ramifications.
The duality of social media and privacy laws places physicians in a virtual pillory: bound and subject to the will of the online forum. They can only hope these stories don’t stay viral long enough for lasting damage to be done.
Recently, some doctors and hospitals decided to fight back and take legal action against patients who posted false statements on social media. Reporting by USA Today found that even though physicians take on great personal and financial risk when filing defamation lawsuits against patients, legal recourse has become their best chance at protecting their reputations and practices.
But let’s take a step back: Is this where we want health care to go? A tit-for-tat war that pits doctors and hospitals against patients, and the only instruments at their disposal are social media and lawyers?
For now, there’s no end in sight. Patients will continue to post on social media. Some will express gratitude for those who treated and rehabilitated them, others will leave honest reviews of situations in which they could have been treated better, and many will post false statements denouncing the people and systems in place to heal them.
Until the flood of misinformation on social media can be curtailed by the institutions whose job it is to monitor their users, it will continue to influence our perception of the way patients are treated, and the way our health care system works.
Brian Carr is an oral and maxillofacial surgery resident in Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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