Medical Misinformation: A Moral Imperative?

This week’s #hcldr chat is inspired by two recent events – one personal and the other international.

This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the 2nd annual Pharma Marketing Conference here in Toronto. I went to the event hoping to learn firsthand what marketing is like in the world of big pharma. While I was there a presenter posed the following question which stuck with me:

As marketers in pharma, do we not have a moral imperative to ensure that the scientifically accurate information about our product is what shows up first in a Google search?

I have to admit that as a marketer, I have never looked at my work in this manner…and now I think I will never look at my work the same way again. What this presenter was suggesting what that there was an obligation for pharmaceutical companies to ensure that accurate information about their drug/therapy is readily available vs the “fake news” that is based on pseudo-science and studies published in non-peer reviewed journals.

I realize that big pharma doesn’t exactly exude trustworthiness, but I found myself thinking about what this presenter said. If pharma was thinking about this, then shouldn’t the rest of healthcare take this under consideration as well? The presenter was speaking about drug information but you could easily substitute “treatment”, “vaccine”, “device” or “app” and his comment would still apply.

Do software vendors have a moral obligation to combat fake stories about their products online? Do device makers have an obligation to ensure that their studies and other information are readily accessible online (vs buried on page 10 of a Google search).

A little bit of caution here. To me, there is a distinction between false + inaccurate information and someone expressing a difference of opinion. A patient that posts that a medication didn’t work for them isn’t fake news – that is an opinion and a factual statement. A post from a former employee that your app causes epileptic seizures because it is designed so poorly, yet has no link to a credible study that demonstrates this – that is a false and unscientific statement.

The latter should be fought (not just because it causes reputation damage), but because you owe it to the person who HASN’T yet used your app but who would benefit immensely from it. If that person reads an inaccurate story about your app and decides to forgo its use, that would be a tragedy.

I would love to explore this question with the #hcldr community.

The second source of inspiration comes from the all the news about the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) that is spreading around the globe. However, spreading even faster are dubious remedies, prevention measures and “cures” that have no basis in science.

On social media (Twitter and Facebook), there have been claims that putting sesame oil in your nostrils will protect you from getting COVID-19.

And that eating garlic (and kimchi) are effective ways to combat COVID-19:

There are so many fake remedies and cures that the World Health Organization put out a post that debunked many of them, with convenient & eye-catching graphics for social media of course:

The danger of course is that if enough people believe these non-sensical remedies they will stop doing the things that actually prevent the spread of disease – namely hand-washing and staying home if you are feeling ill.

Until I sat down to write this week’s blog I hadn’t heard about these outlandish home-remedy claims, but I’m not surprised they exist. After all, there is no shortage of questionable cancer treatments being touted on Facebook, why should the coronavirus be any different?

Fake medicine like garlic and sesame oil are relatively easy to spot, but some fake medical stories are more difficult to discern. The BBC published a handy 10-step guide a couple of years ago with some great advice on how to spot fake medical news:

  1. Look for the source of the article
  2. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
  3. If it’s described as “the secret that even doctors won’t tell you” then be wary
  4. The bigger the claim, the more evidence you need to see that it’s true
  5. Check that the journal being quoted is peer-reviewed
  6. Hast the wonder treatment been tried in humans yet?
  7. Check it out on a website that reviews media coverage (like Health News Review)
  8. Search for the journalist’s name to see what they usually write about
  9. Search for the story’s details, plus the word “myth” or “hoax”
  10. Check the methodology of the research (see NHS Behind the Headlines)

When my grandmother was still alive, she would tell me weekly about a new miracle cure that she had read about or had been told by one of her friends. I would politely try to tell her that there was no evidence that cure actually worked. I would try to laugh with her about it. I’d like to think I was effective – she never stopped taking her medication.

I’m curious to hear from the community about what tactics they have used to combat fake medical news – especially when loved ones are the ones presenting the miracle cure.

What really got my mind bent out of shape this week was the combination of these two things: fake medical news and moral obligations to combat it. Do healthcare insiders (clinicians, administrators, IT folks, media, etc) have a moral obligation to combat fake medical news – aka quakery?

Dr Austin Chiang @austinchiangmd believes we do. In 2019, Chiang started the Association for Healthcare Social Media (ahsm) in part to “combat misinformation” on social media. By encouraging more physicians to become active on social media, Chiang is hoping to drown out fake medical information.

[note KevinMD has been doing this for years with his blog and social media presence too]

The question I’d really like to get the HCLDR community’s opinion on is whether there is an obligation for insiders to combat medical misinformation and if the answer is yes, then to what degree should that fight be taken?

Join me on Tuesday March 3rd at 8:30pm ET (for your local time click here) when we will be discussing medical misinformation and whether there is moral obligation to combat it. Here are the questions:

  • T1 What are some of the craziest medical stories, remedies or cures that you have come across or that have been shared with you?
  • T2 Do healthcare insiders have a moral obligation to combat medial misinformation? Do vendors have a similar obligation for their products?
  • T3 What is reasonable to expect from a vendor or health professional in terms of combatting misinformation? To what degree should they fight it?
  • T4 Share some effective ways you have seen or used to combat medical misinformation.


“Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Myth busters”, World Health Organization, 2019,, accessed 1 March 2020

Hammond, Claudia. “How to Spot Misleading Health News”, BBC Future, 8 February 2017,, accessed 1 March 2020

Jain, Shikha MD. “How Can Doctors Stop Fake Medical News”, KevinMD, 27 February 2019,, accessed 1 March 2020

Farr, Christina. “This doctor is recruiting an army of medical experts to drown out fake health news on Instagram and Twitter”, CNBC, 2 June 2019,, accessed 1 March 2020

Kanekar, Amar Shireesh and Thombre, Avinash. “Fake Medical News: Avoiding Pitfalls and Perils”, Family Medicine and Community Health, 2019,, accessed 1 March 2020

Gharib, Malaka. “Fake Facts Are Flying About Coronavirus. Now There’s A Plan To Debunk Them”, NPR, 21 February 2020,, accessed 1 March 2020

Raphael, Rina. “A shockingly large majority of health news shared on Facebook is fake or misleading”, Fast Company, 4 February 2019,, accessed 1 March 2020

Zadrozny, Brandy. “Social media hosted a lot of fake health news this year. Here’s what went most viral”, NBC News, 29 December 2019,, accessed 1 March 2020

Park, Andrea. “Cancer misinformation leads most popular fake health news on social media: NBC report”, Becker’s Healthcare, 31 December 2019,, accessed 1 March 2020

Otto, Frank. “Breaking Through The Medical Fake News Bubble”, Penn Medicine News, 27 November 2018,, accessed 1 March 2020

Image Credit

World Health Organization

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