Without a doubt, the internet is a wondrous tool. It provides access to an unbelievable array of information to a much broader audience with an incredibly positive impact. One could argue my own sons are so much more informed than I was at their age because of the amount of information they can access right at their fingertips and all in one place. I remember using encyclopedias and looking up information at the library. If this is the way my sons and many others are finding and receiving information, it is paramount we consider how we prevent them from accessing the wrong information.
It has been found that human behaviors are driven very often by fear, and that sensationalism easily attracts our attention. Therefore, with our easy access to information and increased engagement with different social media tools, the quality of material and its validity becomes increasingly critical, especially in healthcare as we move towards more partnership models between healthcare providers and those we serve.
Those who crowd-source lies, fake experts, and misleading leaders, all have one element in common; they know how to capture the attention of their audiences. One can argue that the recent outbreak of measles directly relates to misinformation concerning the risk of vaccines versus their scientifically proven benefit and no association with harm. Those that spread falsehoods have somehow outmaneuvered those that speak truths.
Why does this occur? At a certain level, people inherently dislike being told what to do as they view it as an infringement on their rights, and we, as United States citizens, celebrate our freedoms and focus on our individualism. For instance, people frequently perceive that Science constricts our rights rather than freeing us to live in a better situation. Moreover, humans are wired to respond to fear based on physiological makeup. “Fight or flight” is wired within our DNA and we respond accordingly, therefore if a person mentions “This will hurt,” there is a reactive response to avoid that situation. If a person is told a circumstance will help, they do not have a physiological reaction that draws them to that activity or solution; thus, they must actively believe it versus it being a visceral reaction.
If we are to provide better, more accurate information, how do we manage these dynamics when we are trying to improve the health and wellness of those we serve?
First, we must own up to the fact this is our issue, and because of that, it is also on us, to solve it. Our medical societies and our disseminators of medical information such as journals must consider their audience is broader than clinicians, as in reality; it is anyone who can access the internet. Therefore, the way we package information should consider a broader audience and how they may respond to such information.
Although it may seem a little counterintuitive we also would be well-served to “fight fire with fire,” meaning if people respond to fear, let us utilize that fear for good. Just like those creating smoking cessation campaigns. The posters they share of what those who smoke can look like have proved to be very effective. They are simply providing truthful effects of something that is harmful. All in all, it is our duty to spread truthful medical information to the best of our abilities and create strategies to counteract falsehoods and elevate our models of sharing information in ways that are meaningful and impactful. As Clinicians we cannot lose this game, the health of our communities depends on it!