In the months since the WHO said that SARS-CoV-2, also known as COVID-19, was causing a global pandemic – that happened on March 11, 2020, for those of you keeping track of historical dates – there’s been an explosion of information and scientific exploration related to COVID-19. Everything from pre-prints of studies on MedRxiv (pronounced “med archive”) and BioRxiv (pronounced “bio archive”) to studies that make it through peer review to official article status, only to kick off virtual fistfights in the medical science community, we’ve seen it all. The ongoing argument over hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 is just one example of that fistfight phenomenon.
This puts those of us on the ground – people, the ones that the medical science community calls “patients” – in a quandary. Who do we listen to? What’s the real story, and what’s just conjecture or PR spin? How do we separate fact from fiction, and truth from dangerous mis- or dis-information, during a pandemic?
I’ve talked about some of the sources I trust on science and medicine reporting in previous posts for Patient Empowerment Network. In April, I shared a short list of sources I track for “real deal” information, both on the pandemic and on medical science in general. In May, I tackled the topic of uncertainty, which is baked in to all scientific efforts, with knowledge only coming from many experiments, sometimes over years, that slowly reveal that knowledge.
Those sources are still trustworthy. Uncertainty is still baked into science. Add our very fractured public square, where opinions are expressed at volume, by people who may have an axe to grind or a political point of view that makes them more interested in spreading their point of view, not evidence-based information, and it’s become a misinfo-demic out there – a pandemic level of misinformation that can drown out voices sharing that evidence-based work toward knowledge called “science.”
In an interview with Minnesota TV news station KTSP, one of my trusted sources, Gary Schwitzer of Health News Review, said that the situation we find ourselves in is “a perfect storm of pandemic misinformation.”
So, what should we all be doing to prevent getting infected by the misinfo-demic ourselves? I’d recommend using the tried and true fact-checking methods of source checking – is the source of the information reliable? If it’s something you’re seeing in a social media post, stay skeptical until you’ve seen it in a fact-based outlet like a major metropolitan daily news outlet or in a scientific journal. If it’s something in one of those fact-based outlets, check the source material that should be linked to, or referred to, in the piece itself.
If you want to take a deep dive into how to vet medical science and health stories, you can check out Health News Review’s toolkits – they have them for understanding science, how to assess conflicts of interest, analyzing science news stories, and more.
It is a misinfo-demic out there, so it’s up to us to make sure we don’t wind up buying any snake oil.
Casey Quinlan covered her share of medical stories as a TV news field producer, and used healthcare as part of her observational comedy set as a standup comic. So when she got a breast cancer diagnosis five days before Christmas in 2007, she used her research, communication, and comedy skills to navigate treatment, and wrote “Cancer for Christmas: Making the Most of a Daunting Gift” about managing medical care, and the importance of health literate self-advocacy. In addition to her ongoing work as a journalist, she’s a popular speaker and thought leader on healthcare system transformation from the ground up.