Healthcare Misinformation, Old as Time: Navigating Today's Platform

Mis(dis)information has been around for centuries. Maneuvering in the internet, social media world to educate the public is challenging. Identifying a creditable source is key. Nurses General Nursing Article

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Healthcare Misinformation, Old as Time: Navigating Today's Platform

In today’s changing health care climate, media plays a significant role in the dissemination of health information.  This has proved not only challenging for nurses but also helpful in some instances.  Valid sources serve as adjuncts to education given by a professional.  When the public receives health information that has been widely distributed through mass media with a unified message, there is a sense of validation to the content.  Conversely, questionable information outlets, anecdotal testimonies, and public figures that provide information that is non-scientific based cause mistrust and confusion.  This has been seen throughout history.  Mis(dis)information will always be here, so controlling the message has become vital.  When patients use search engines and social media, the vast amount of information at their fingertips can be overwhelming.  With all this available, one must ask: “What is Creditable?”  And, how do we spread that information?  Using the media to our advantage is key, and reinforcing the message via face-to-face medical encounters.

History of Misinformation

Misinformation and/or disinformation have been around for centuries.  Back in the 1800s, it was not uncommon to find newspaper ads touting the medicinal benefits of “snake oils.”  Stanley Clark made quite a spectacle of promoting his product back then.  Fortunately, the government stepped in and exposed his fraudulent product1,2.  Moving on to the 20th century, vaccines causing autism surfaced in the media.  Later, the truth behind the study that caused all the hysteria was debunked3.  In more recent years, there have been outbreaks of measles among the unvaccinated; according to the CDC, some of this is because of misinformation4.  Misinformation is not new; just more difficult to correct in our internet world.

How Can We Control the Message?

Educating the public on identifying a creditable source is a beginning.  As a nurse with many years of experience, dissecting these sources has become a standard when seeking out valid information. 

A list of standard questions arises while combing through the sources: 

  • Is it backed by scientific evidence? 
  • Does it have a standing reputation as a valid source? 
  • Is there a conflict of interest? 
  • Is this source bias?
  • Who conducted the study?
  • Who sponsored the study?
  • Where did the study take place? 
  • Is this a testimony or a sales pitch?
  • Is the Author an expert in the field?

More education is needed on identifying trusted information.  Critically looking at websites etc. is a developed skill.  Fortunately, it has become easier to refer patients and/or the public to reputable sites.  Most hospitals, clinics, and offices have go-to sites where the patients/public are directed for additional information.  These are typically scientifically backed, such as government sites or trusted societies I.e., CDC, the American Cancer Society, etc.  This has trended well over the years; health care experts can control the message by backing reputable entities.  However, due to the many available media outlets, the public questions why their source is not “creditable.”  This is an opportunity to open a conversation about who and what to trust.

Contradicting the “Trusted Source”

Anecdotal testimonies, trusted media personalities, and in some cases, government officials without medical expertise are often seen as valid information sources. Correcting this information with science can be tricky.  Nurses want to be sensitive to peoples’ beliefs.  However, our duty is to explain the science behind medicine, and it is not always in line with these sources.  When a largely seen “trusted source” hasn’t given all the details or omitted some very important ones, we are challenged to correct it.  Filling in the blanks or elaborating on the topic with our professional experience can help the public better understand. 

For 20 years running, nurses have secured the #1 spot on the Gallup Poll for the most trusted profession 5.  The public does trust us, and we can continue to make strides in educating the public at large with accurate, scientifically based information. 

No Magic Bullet

Unfortunately, there is no “magic bullet” to control the media outlets, but we can continue to educate our population even if it is one person at a time.  Small victories will hopefully lead to big successes.  Nurses are strategically placed after the COVID pandemic to make a difference.  Nurse blogs, websites, and professional societies can push forward the message and give us the platform to share our expertise. 


1The history of snake oil

2Clark Stanley: The Original Snake Oil Salesman

3The MMR Vaccine and Autism

4Increase in Measles Cases — United States, January 1–April 26, 2019

5Military Brass, Judges Among Professions at New Image Lows

Carla Valdez RN, BSN, A 24 year nurse with experience in an Ambulatory Surgery Center, Gastroenterology, and Public Health. I have served as a general staff nurse as well as Administrator over an ASC and 2 County Public Health Departments.

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