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“Fake News” Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

In a recent post, I talked about the trust that’s required for effective peer health discussions. That trust issue is even more critical when it comes to the science of medicine, and its inclusion in those peer health discussions – as in, is what’s being shared in peer health groups scientifically sound, or snake oil?

One of the downsides of giving everyone a voice – one of the foundational goals of the web, according to Tim Berners-Lee, its creator, “its true potential would only be unleashed if anyone, anywhere could use it without paying a fee or having to ask for permission”- is that everyone has an opinion and a place to express it, but opinions are not facts.

Which brings me to today’s web, where anyone with a smartphone can share an opinion, call it a fact, and gather a community around that opinion-in-fact-clothing. There is dangerous “fake news” mushrooming across the globe, thanks to the web, with the most egregious versions of it driving bad decisions about human health. One example of that is what’s called the anti-vaxx movement, where a debunked article by a disgraced scientist named Andrew Wakefield has continued to drive a mistaken belief that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine given to children under two years old causes autism. (Spoiler: it does not.)

That’s only one example. There are a host of others, including bogus cancer cures that proliferate on Facebook and YouTube, and recommendations that drinking bleach can cure autism. So what’s a patient community member to do? And where’s the clinician community on this issue?

In a powerful op-ed in the New York Times in December of last year, “Dr. Google Is a Liar,”cardiologist Dr. Haider Warraich said that Silicon Valley needs to own their part of this problem, that journalists need to do a better job of covering health and science news, and that the scientific community itself needs to be more transparent and easy to understand when they talk about new discoveries.

It turns out that the cardiology team is playing hard on the side of truth here, publishing an editorial in February 2019 in more than two dozen cardiology-related scientific journals around the world, saying that the medical community needs to help the public vet the message they’re getting from whatever sources they use for health information. The American Heart Association even has a short and snappy video – it qualifies as a thirty second ad that could run on television – “5 tips for finding trustworthy health information online” that recommends: Top of FormBottom of Form

  1. Look for government sites, medical professional societies, and reputable medical schools as information sources
  2. Look for sites that stay current, that refer to updated information and current science
  3. Make sure the information on the site is reviewed by a medical professional
  4. Beware of sites that promote “miracle cures” (and that run ads for those “miracles”)
  5. Verify what you read with your clinical care team

The clinician community has joined the fight against fake news in medical science. The patient community needs to make the same commitment to fighting junk science in our circles. What should be on our list of recommendations for avoiding falling for “fake news”? And should we develop a code of ethics for patient community leaders that covers the information we share online?

I welcome all suggestions, and I’ll include them in a future post. Just hit me up on Twitter, using the hashtag #PtLeaderEthics, or via email. Let’s fight fake science news together, shall we?

Flu Epidemic Highlights the Need to Take Precautions

If you’re the type of person who doesn’t believe in getting flu shots or who doesn’t take precautions, the 2017-18 flu season surely should convince you of the seriousness of the threat. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the infection rate has reached 7.7 percent, which makes it the equal of the deadly swine flu outbreak of 2009. Hundreds of thousands nationwide have been hospitalized with the flu, and more than 40,000 have died, some of them even children, which means the 2017-18 flu virus has reached epidemic levels. There are many ways to prevent the flu, including well-known steps such as frequent hand washing, disinfecting, and getting the flu shot, to smart lifestyle choices that bolster your system against infectious illness.

Remember, when it comes to avoiding the flu, your dog isn’t necessarily your best friend. You can contract the flu in nontraditional ways, such as the interspecies transmission of a virus, which sometimes creates a more harmful or easily transmissible mutation to occur. This can be especially dangerous with the influenza virus, which is able to evolve pretty easily.

Smart choices

Few things protect you as well as good, restful sleep each night. It restores your body and strengthens the immune system, so it’s advisable to avoid alcohol consumption, which disrupts your REM sleep. Feeling tired and worn down makes you much more vulnerable to the flu. Same goes for caffeine, so cut back on all that coffee, especially in the evening. Consider switching to decaf. And don’t be worried about taste, many brands are just as tasty as the real thing, even if they don’t supply that jolt. Even better, substitute green or black tea for coffee, and don’t stint on the lemon and honey, which offer their own health benefits (honey has antibacterial qualities).

Protein is another ally in your battle against the flu. Eat fish and eggs as much as possible, because of their ability to strengthen the immune system. If you need something a bit more than plain old scrambled or fried eggs to start your day, a soufflé or frittata will get the job done just as well, plus you can mix in all kinds of tasty things, like onion, cheese, and any greens you please.

Account for high-traffic areas

Most people pick up a virus at work. Things can get pretty hectic at the office, and it can be easy to forget to disinfect your surroundings or yourself. Plus, you’re also forced into close quarters with people who may be chock full of germs and should probably be at home convalescing. That makes work a “perfect storm” for the transmission of a highly infectious illness like the flu. Make liberal use of disinfectant wipes around your work station and anywhere else you might come into contact with germs others have left behind (such as the coffee pot, door handles, etc.). Remember that viruses can survive on surfaces for days.

Use your own pen

Considering how easy it is to get sick just by touching seemingly innocuous objects, it’s a good idea to carry around your own pen so that you’ll have something germ-free to write and sign things with at the bank drive-through or the pharmacy. It’s a good way of controlling your environment, rather than using a pen that’s been passed from hand to hand.

Just juice it

Juice a cold, juice a fever. That’s been the advice of medical science for a long time. Having a juicer makes it easy to follow that advice, since you can juice just about any fruit or vegetable, which will help keep your immune system strong.

You don’t have to spend flu season in a plastic bubble, but you should try to control your own environment and reinforce your immune system. Try looking at every object as a potential carrier of germs. And be sure not to neglect your sleep or diet.


 

Courtesy of Pixabay

Fact Checking 101: Health Literacy in Real Time

There’s a medical miracle every day, if you believe headlines on popular media sites. If you just read those headlines, cancer is cured daily, as are hepatitis C, and a host of neurological conditions. Dive into the stories, though, and you’ll all too often find the “in mice” red flag, meaning that scientific experiments have indicated that mice are having terrific outcomes from whatever substance is being touted. Humans? Not so much.

Information flows at the speed of life – thank you, Internet – but information does not always equal factual truth. Which is where fact checking comes in, and what I’ll be offering tips on here. As a journalist, I’ve hunted down confirmations on stories for years – here’s a quick primer on doing it for your own health/science literacy building.

  • Snopes.com: this site is the granddaddy of online myth busting. They have a dedicated channel for health news, which is definitely a good first stop to fact check a headline touting a “cure” for an illness or condition.
  • Sense About Science USA: the US arm of the UK-based Sense About Science and AllTrials, this site takes a deep dive into advocacy and literacy building for both the public, and professionals, around medical science. They’re in the process of creating an AllAccess Patient Guide on clinical trial participation, and transparency in reporting on all trials, which will be published in the fall of this year (2017).
  • Health News Review: the editors and reviewers behind this site are professional healthcare journalists dedicated to reading and scoring the reporting on health science in major media. I think of them as Politifact For Healthcare – they don’t issue “pants on fire” or “Pinocchio” warnings, but their 5-star review system is rigorous, and great reading.
  • FactCheck.org and FlackCheck.org: these sites assess news stories and sources in many categories, from politics to science to health policy. They’re produced by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and are great resources for fact checking in all news categories, not just science.
  • Retraction Watch: this is in the Super Science Nerd Journalist zone, covering the retraction of scientific papers around the world. There’s an old news adage about corrections being buried deep beneath the front page – that rule goes double in science publishing. A paper is published, and makes big headlines. If it’s retracted weeks/months/years later, there’s seldom a screaming headline announcing the retraction, leaving the untruth out there to be misunderstood and often misused.

Building your own health and science literacy is a process. Reading the latest medical science news is a starting point, but you have to add fact checking as a critical part of your learning curve. Then use the “see one, do one, teach one” method to help your friends and family build their health literacy, teaching them how to find and fact check the science news that matters – that’s how we all build healthy, science-literate communities.