Fake medical news

If you believed every health news you read online, you might decide you no longer needed a doctor. Search online for just about any ailment and chances are there will be tons of remedies offered as ‘natural cure for’, ‘latest treatment to reverse…’, or ‘safe alternative to’, and other suggestive titles.

Fake news, before it became popular among politicians, was already a staple feature on medical news websites. False medical information can unnecessarily scare patients, create doubt about treatments they are undergoing, delay timely medical care, and cause patients to spend money on spurious claims.

A post that appeared on Facebook in 2016, about the ability of dandelion weed to boost immune system and cure cancer, was shared 1.4 million times and was the most shared ‘cancer’ story on social media platforms that year. While dandelion weed may or may not have virtues, none of it has been verified by any medical studies so far.

The ‘must click’ headlines and content often hides the fact that the claims they make are purely observational, meaning they provide data, but not a specific cause for the data. The patient ate dandelion weed; the person’s cancer displayed remission. There is no evidence linking dandelion weed as the cause for the remission, or that the cancer was cured permanently. The Latin phrase ‘cum hoc ergo propter hoc’, which translates to, ‘with this, therefore because of this’, can be applied to these stories.

In statistics, when two variables are found to be correlated it is tempting to jump to conclusions and assume that one variable causes another. For instance, during a ten-year period from 1999 to 2009, there was a 93.5 percent correlation between the number of Japanese cars imported into the United States and the number of people who committed suicide by purposely crashing their cars. Would that imply importing Japanese cars leads to more car suicides? Similarly, there was a 99.3 percent correlation between the divorce rates in Maine in the US, and the consumption of margarine between 2000 and 2009. However, this does not suggest that consuming more margarine leads to more divorces in Maine.

Most internet hypes about cures for this and that disease or shortcomings are usually deduced from similar unrelated causes or unverified data that is not consistently replicable.

The internet is fueled by an insatiable thirst for new content, and not just any content, but easily digestible, and more importantly, ‘clickable’ content. However, medical studies and reports do not fit that ‘clickable, digestible’ criteria; they are usually lengthy, boring stuff that for the most part makes sense only to those associated with the study.

People click on health stories or share them for any number of reasons. The story reinforces their belief about alternative medicine, or it offers hope of a cure, or it is cheaper than other medical options, or simply because they are gullible and easily vulnerable to con artists trying to sell something.

People often purchase expensive supplements based on what they believe to be authentic medical claims that are advertised online claiming to cure ailments, relieve symptoms, or to help gain health, vigor and stamina. You need to remain clear-eyed about what you read online or even on print. Are the claims supported by credible medical institutions or associations; are there a number of studies which have reached the same conclusion; is there a disclaimer in the story that the data is only observational.

The ability to sift through spurious health claims or understand medical language is often difficult. In the Health page of The Times Kuwait, we attempt to sift through the scientific jargon and ensure that the news we publish is concise, relatively simple and has been peer-reviewed in reputable, independent medical journals, or were conducted at well-known institutions or universities.

When you need to make a decision about your health, you need it to be based on verifiable evidence. The next time you read of easy-peasy online claims such as, “See what the ‘latest celebrity star’ takes in the morning to stay fit and healthy”, or “Eat this diet, or drink this super health drink, and you will never get cancer”, be aware, do not bite that click-bait.