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Most Popular YouTube Health Videos Might Contain Medical Misinformation

Although YouTube has filters to prioritize expert-led health videos, the most popular posts have qualities that make them vulnerable to conveying medical misinformation.

There’s some good medical information on consumer-facing social media platforms like YouTube, but those aren’t the ones most people are viewing, according to researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In fact, the most-viewed videos are the ones peddling medical misinformation, the team said.

Looking particularly at videos about sleep disorders and insomnia, the researchers found that despite some efforts in the past few years, social media websites still struggle to manage the potential for medical misinformation on their websites.

The researchers acknowledged that it’s difficult for platforms like YouTube to monitor the information offered in popular videos, especially considering the constraints in posting complex medical information.

"What's tricky is that so much of health information is very nuanced, and a lot of popular YouTube videos have clickbait and appeal to shorter attention spans," lead study author Rebecca Robbins, PhD, investigator in the Brigham’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement.

"People today often want very bite-sized pieces of information. However, science is fundamentally more nuanced than a one-liner or the 280 characters in a Twitter post."

The researchers scoured YouTube using search terms like “sleep tips” and “insomnia” to find the most popular videos and also used YouTube’s filter that puts content created by healthcare organizations at the top of the search results.

From there, the team compared the content and information in each category of video: popular or provider-created.

Overall, the most-viewed videos fell short of providing high-quality medical information. Using communication tools like the Patient Education Materials Assessment Tool (PEMAT) and the DISCERN brief questionnaire, the team found that these more popular videos had qualities that made them more likely to convey medical misinformation.

For example, most of these more popular videos were created by bloggers (42.9 percent). A third was created by medical professionals, and 23.8 percent by health coaches.

Alarmingly, two-thirds of the videos in the popular category demonstrated commercial bias. That compares to 0 percent of the videos produced by medical experts that demonstrated commercial bias or promoted a product or service.

And in a final blow, these popular videos amass far broader viewership than those created by healthcare organizations. While popular videos averaged 8.2 million views, those created by experts got an average of only 0.3 million views.

The researchers did not investigate the reasons behind those disparities in viewers or why consumers are more drawn to the popular videos. They did indicate that bloggers are experts in creating engaging content that is aesthetically pleasing and relatable, which could explain some of the disparity.

Regardless, the virality of these less reputable videos is concerning to public health, according to senior study author Stuart Quan, MD, clinical chief and medical director of the Brigham’s Sleep Disorder Service in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders.

“Medical misinformation, including what’s found in some videos about sleep disorders, can lead to patients avoiding care or receiving the wrong care and can be detrimental to patient outcomes,” Quan stated publicly. "Sleep Medicine is not immune to this issue."

The researchers plan to complete similar investigations of other social media platforms, like TikTok, to better understand how pervasive this problem is. Ideally, research like this will help social media platforms assess how medical misinformation is moving on their websites and help them form deeper partnerships with medical professionals as content creators.

For its part, YouTube has made some strides in addressing medical misinformation that may crop up on its website. In June 2021, the social media giant partnered with Mass General Brigham, of which the Brigham is a founding partner, to address medical misinformation on the website.

The partnership featured Mass General Brigham experts to create content debunking common medical misinformation. This partnership came about during the nation’s initial COVID-19 vaccine rollout period, but Mass General Brigham and YouTube noted that experts would create content addressing a wide variety of healthcare topics.

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