November 12, 2015
4 min read

Blogs, syndicated TV and how physicians can push back against misinformation

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Physicians can no longer ignore, roll their eyes at, or brush off the medical and health misinformation they see on television, in print and online, according to Madelyn H. Fernstrom, PhD, CNS, the health and nutrition editor for NBC News and the Today show.

Speaking during a session, titled “Media Messages: How to Handle Star Struck Patients,” at The Obesity Society’s and the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery’s ObesityWeek in Los Angeles last week, Fernstrom urged her colleagues in the medical field to pay attention to the kinds of faulty information that are disseminated in widely consumed media on all platforms, adding that only then will they be able to best serve their patients by correcting any confusion they may have.

“In a world where the media is everywhere, I think for the benefit of our patients and for ourselves, we have to start to really listen because, as we all know, our patients really want to do the right thing,” Fernstrom said. “No one wants to be heavy; everyone wants to succeed.”

Fernstrom described a recent “explosion of platforms” for health information online, from BuzzFeed and WebMD, to celebrity blogs to anyone with a substantial number of Twitter followers. They have joined an already often-noisy field that also includes health journalists, experts and celebrity-driven health television shows in syndication.

She said patients and health consumers rarely recognize the differences between the evidence-based, academic specialist and other experts of potentially “uneven” quality who may or may not have an agenda.

“They say, ‘Oh, I read this on BuzzFeed, so it must be true,’” Fernstrom said. “Even sites like the Huffington Post — which covers things in an evidence-based way sometimes, but has so many contributors that there’s not a lot of fact-checking — sometimes cherry pick from good information, which is hard enough as a clinician to take a look at and say, ‘Some of this doesn’t sound right,’ or ‘It’s sort of true,’ or ‘A little too much opinion.’”

Fernstrom described the effect celebrities have in health reporting and information as a “giant boondoggle.” She specifically mentioned actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Goop” brand, as well as Vani Hari, the blogger known as the Food Babe, as particularly telling examples.

“With Goop, it says don’t eat starch — it’s bad for you,” Fernstrom said. “Carbs will make you fat. Stay away from gluten. I mean, if it were up to her, you’d be eating nothing. And it’s simply finding experts and specialist that have all kinds of, let’s say, self-interest in different things.”

In addition, the Food Babe, according to Fernstrom, is paid by many of the food companies she endorses — typically those that offer “organic” and gluten-free products — despite previously stated claims of independence.

Another enabler of health misinformation are the lax regulations in television entertainment, Fernstrom said.

Unlike broadcast news divisions, which operate under legal standards with regard to health reporting and are prohibited from product placement, entertainment shows such as The Biggest Loser, as well as programs in syndication, including Dr. Phil, The Dr. Oz Show and The Oprah Winfrey Show, are under no such obligations.

“The biggest confusion comes with syndication,” Fernstrom said. “… where there aren’t any rules. They’re health-ish people, but there are no rules against what you are legally allowed to do if it’s a syndicated show.”

However, another source of misinformation comes not from the media, but from academic public relations offices, where the pressures of staying relevant and in the news can lead to press releases that often do not reflect any of the data that were originally presented, according to Fernstrom. In addition, the use of terms such as “association” and “link” can create confusion regarding cause and effect, she said.

Added to that is the issue of health journalists who only read the press release, and not the original study.

The most recent examples of these issues combining to create sensational headlines across the world, she said, were the widespread reports of “processed meats and red meat give you cancer,” and “cheese makes you a food addict.”

“So, these are the kinds of things that oftentimes as clinicians we just ignore,” Fernstrom said. “It’s just too ridiculous. Who would believe it? But many of our patients and consumers do believe it, so we need to meet people where they are and help them understand where this comes from.”

The solution, according to Fernstrom, is for physicians to push back against the misinformation they see, and for news organizations to provide more voices to experts — and for experts to make themselves available — to “debunk” the sensational headlines.

“For academic expertise in popular media, that availability matters,” Fernstrom said. “So, all of you who feel you could contribute more, be available when media people call out. Or write an editorial, or do other things that can get the right information out, because it’s really important.”

Physicians should also be more proactive in understanding where health misinformation comes from, she said.

“We can’t just shrug and say, ‘Who’s even paying attention,’” Fernstrom said. “Everyone is paying attention, and part of this is we need to fight back as a field, and be more assertive.” – by Jason Laday