“Most of us have done it — some more than once,” acknowledged Dr. S. Adam Ramin, urologist and medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles. “You come down with an illness… and what do you do? You page Dr. Google and research your condition online. Depending on the words you search and the preexisting knowledge you may or may not have, such an activity can send you spiraling down a rabbit hole of worry and despair.”
Or conversely, make you feel that you’ve found a research study or new treatment for your health issue that your doctor — for some reason — isn’t privy to.
In 2016, an article with the intriguing headline, “Dandelion weed can boost your immune system and cure cancer,” was shared 1.4 million times on Facebook. It was the most shared “cancer” story on the social media platform that year.
The only problem? It wasn’t true.
While dandelion may have benefits for cancer patients, at the time of publication, a study had just launched and no results had been confirmed.
“There’s lots of false information on the internet because there are people who want to believe things to be true, have incentive to believe that they’re true, are trying to sell you something or convince you not to buy something. You have to sift through all of that,” explained Dr. Ivan Oransky, president of the board of directors of the Association of Health Care Journalists.
The internet is an insatiable beast that requires content around the clock. (As do all us readers.) And not just any content, but that which is clickable and easy to digest.
Medical studies don’t organically fit that bill. They’re dense with scientific jargon, figures and tables to interpret and methods of analysis to take into account. Much can get lost in translation — by either accident or convenience — by the time all that’s transformed into a must-click headline.
Take, for instance, a 2017 study published in the medical journal, JAMA Internal Medicine. Its decidedly unsexy title? “Comparison of hospital mortality and readmission rates for Medicare patients treated by male vs. female physicians.”
It was far more interesting to the internet when it was whittled down to the “news” that women doctors are superior to men.
What wasn’t captured: the fact that this was an observational study, meaning it provided data, but not a specific cause about the data.
“It is almost as though, when it comes to medical headlines, popularity beats out the evidence,” Dr. Roger Ladouceur, an associate scientific editor for Canadian Family Physician wrote in response to the “news” this particular study generated.
By the time of its publication, the JAMA study had been viewed a whopping 230,000 times, with 4,000 of those coming from outside the academic world.