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Medical Misinformation: 'It can be Life-Threatening'

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   May 30, 2023

Common areas of medical misinformation are related to childhood vaccinations, natural remedies, and dietary supplements.

Medical misinformation, which was rampant during the coronavirus pandemic, continues to be a significant issue in healthcare, says Frank McGillin, MBA, CEO of The Clinic by Cleveland Clinic, a leading provider of expert second opinions.

Medical misinformation is one of the hallmarks of the pandemic. Medical misinformation was spread about coronavirus vaccines and treatments.

Now that the crisis phase of the pandemic has passed, medical misinformation has returned to areas subject to misinformation before the pandemic, McGillin says.

"What we are seeing is that the misinformation is in areas that were present before the pandemic. Vaccines in general continue to be the subject of misinformation, particularly around childhood vaccines, which is leaving many populations unprotected. There is also misinformation about natural remedies and dietary supplements. People are looking for alternatives. Sometimes, there is a belief that pharmaceuticals are not the best route forward. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in the natural remedy space who are making unsubstantiated claims. They are tapping into people's fears and desires," he says.

When you look at the typical healthcare consumer who is trying to understand the health journey that they are facing, they are confronted with misinformation, McGillin says. "They are confronted with a lack of quality information. If you look at online health trackers, there is research that has shown that only a third of the responses that consumers have encountered for online symptom trackers have pointed them in the right direction. It gets back to healthcare is complex, and the quality of the questions that are asked help define the quality of the answer."

Online sources of information can lead patients astray, he says. "While Google is a wonderful resource, and our data shows Google is a go-to source for patients, often they do not have the expertise to ask the right questions when confronted with an overwhelming amount of data. It helps to have experts to parse that data."

Misinformation plays a role in misdiagnosis, but part of this problem is just access to quality information, particularly for rare or complex conditions, McGillin says. "In these cases, when you are talking with a physician, you want to access someone who has a lot of experience with your specific condition. That is part of the value of tapping into academic centers such as Cleveland Clinic. We see those kinds of patients regularly."

In addition to clinical consequences, the economic impact of medical misinformation is significant, he says.

"There are more than 10,000 conditions that can be potentially diagnosed and only about 250 symptoms. Some small variability can lead to one conclusion versus another. Our data shows that on average there could be savings for misdiagnosis of about $12,000 per occurrence. Some of that is over-utilization of unnecessary procedures. For example, there are people with back pain who may not be a good candidate for back surgery, but they have been led to believe either through their own research or from a physician that back surgery is appropriate. In reality, physical therapy is the frontline treatment for back pain, and it not only saves money but also spares patients the pain and suffering from recovering from an invasive procedure."

How clinicians can work with misinformed patients

When working with misinformed patients, trust is crucial for clinicians, McGillin says. "You need to establish a level of trust with the patient. Clinicians need to listen to their concerns. If you think about the typical interaction between a physician and a patient, there is not a lot of face time. So, the quality of that face time is important. Is the healthcare provider listening to you? This involves soft skills."

The clinician-patient interaction is pivotal, he says. "It begins with the interplay with the patient and listening to the patient. If a patient comes in and says, 'I printed out this information from the Internet about a condition.' Instead of dismissing the patient out of hand, the clinician needs to understand the patient's concerns. Facts alone are insufficient. People want to be listened to. People want to make sure you are addressing their concerns and their needs. If you do that, then patients will open their eyes to the facts and the scientific research. The worst thing a clinician can do is shut a patient down. They will think their views are not important, and they will not trust the physician."

Christopher Cheney is the CMO editor at HealthLeaders.


During the coronavirus pandemic, medical misinformation was widespread about COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Medical misinformation can have severe clinical consequences such as misdiagnosis.

In addition to clinical consequences, the economic impact of medical misinformation is significant.

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