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How to Recognize Health Misinformation

From foods to skin creams to ice baths. We’re inundated with health misinformation. Products that say they’ll improve our health, cure disease and make us live longer. For some, the claims may be true, but for many, it can be hard to tell fact from fiction.

While a lot of these products don’t live up to their hype, most are harmless, apart from the money you pay for them. Yet some can cause short and long term problems. Whether directly, through harm incurred as a result of use, to indirectly when forgoing proven treatment for something that may not work.

So why do so many people spend so much money on these products? The first answer that may spring to your mind is because they’re uneducated or easily conned and lured by promises of beauty and ageless ageing. But a larger part of it is because people are disenchanted with health care.

disenchantment with health care can lead to people being suscetible to health misinformation

Disenchanted with Health Care Opens the Door for Health Misinformation

Health care is problem based, meaning, you feel bad, you go to the doctor, or if worse, the hospital. Very little time is given to prevention. But we all want to stay healthy, and not just looked after if we’re sick.

Health care is also cautious. There are very few diseases we can actually cure, and therefore, no promises are made. And it takes time to generate evidence and bring a treatment to market. This is due in large part to the regulatory requirements before a health claim can be made. While this slows down access to new treatments, it ensures safety and benefit in line with the health claim. In contrast, many supposed health products don’t need to go through these regulatory hoops and can promise instant results.

Health care and health scientists also don’t do a good job communicating with the public. There’s this assumption in health sciences that if you conduct a randomized controlled trial, the results will speak for themselves. But most people don’t ever hear of these studies or if they do, it’s usually presented in jargon few can understand.

So what we’re left with is a lot of health misinformation getting profiled and a lot of science-based evidence not getting to the public. Certainly scientists such as me have a lot of work to do to tip the balance. But there ways in which you can question the value of a health product and here are some.

natural labelling can be a form of health misinformation

Does it Say All Natural on It?

There are a lot of natural things that are good for us. Fruits and vegetables for examples. We don’t need these things to have a sticker on them saying their natural. But lots of other products are labelled as natural.

The assumption is that if it’s natural, it must be good for us. In 2013, Gwyneth Paltrow was quoted as saying, “I don’t think anything that is natural can be bad for you…” Unfortunately, there are lots of things, which are natural and not good for you. From poison ivy to arsenic to asbestos, these are all natural things we should stay away from. So just take an extra look at the ingredients of anything labelled as natural to see if it is truly good for you.

is it too good to be true?

Does it Sound Too Good to Be True?

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Many health products, herbal remedies and supplements are labelled as cure-alls or promising instant results. Always without providing any scientific evidence it works. Years ago a patient spoke to me about heart drops that can remove blockages in people’s hearts.

It struck me that if it was so good, then why hadn’t it been tested in studies? I also asked why hasn’t one of the big pharmaceutical companies bought it up? Reversing atherosclerosis is pretty close to finding the Holy Grail, and if these drops worked, why don’t we know about it and why aren’t the people selling the drops super-rich?

It’s Not a Drug

You might put this one under the ‘natural’ point above, but I think it deserves its own comment. It seems some people think that if something is a drug, it must be bad for you. A drug is something that is made up in a lab. It’s a chemical, and chemicals can’t be good for us. But being a chemical, or made in a lab, doesn’t mean it’s bad.

Often, the difference between a drug and something that isn’t a drug is whether there is evidence of a health effect. A drug can be entirely natural. The first statin (cholesterol lowering medication), lovastatin, was based on an active ingredient in red yeast rice. Similarly, aspirin, was derived from salicylic acid from willow trees. Yes, there are side effects from certain drugs, and they may not work for everyone, but the advancement of medicines is one of the reasons why life expectancy keeps increasing.

celebrity endorsement and health misinformation

Is it Endorsed by a Celebrity?

Celebrities are used to promote products for a number of reasons. First, many of us want to be like them, and often the implied message is that by buying the product this will happen. Second, celebrities are familiar to us. We see them everywhere, from TV, social media to magazines. We feel we know them, just like we know our friends and family, and with that comes trust. And lastly, there is the halo effect of celebrities. Because they’re famous and successful in one area, we assume they are in all areas.

The influence of celebrities can both be helpful or harmful. For example, many celebrities help raise awareness of certain diseases, such as the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research. But that’s different from a celebrity being paid to endorse a product. And usually we can recognize those types of endorsements such as LeBron James’ Sprite commercial. But in recent years, some celebrities have started their own health and wellbeing companies, with the most famous being Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop. These companies promise wellness in a pseudo-science way with the celebrity cashing in on the profits. Something in science referred to as a conflict of interest.

Healthy misinformation has been around for centuries and is unlikely to go away. Arming yourself with a few questions and a healthy dose of skepticism can help guard you against its negative effects. In addition, we need more from our scientists and health care professionals. They need to talk to us in ways that are meaningful so we can be informed about all our health choices.

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3 responses to “How to Recognize Health Misinformation”

  1. Thank you for the writing about “It’s not a drug.” Some people are very reluctant to take drugs and prefer to rely on what they describe as natural remedies, assuming they are safer. Drugs are chemicals; they have a chemical composition. But, so do herbal remedies. They all have effects on the body, both good and bad. Birch oil or wintergreen is a good example. It’s natural, but it can have serious toxic effects if used inappropriately. The word natural does not necessarily equate with safe, and neither does the term drug necessarily equate with harmful. I close with the example of the wonders of antibiotics. Penicillin and sulfur drugs are directly responsible for our longer life spans today. I suggest that anyone that would argue we should ban those substances, because they are drugs and not natural would be viewed as just plain nuts!

    1. Thanks for the great comment. Really appreciate it!

  2. […] there’s a lot of health misinformation out there but very few scientists who write outside of the academic arena, I thought there was a […]

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