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Three-Quarters of Docs Lament Medical Misinformation Problem

Physician respondents said they and their peers are responsible for combatting medical misinformation, but roadblocks like patient trust might get in the way.

The medical misinformation problem isn’t going away, with around three-quarters of physicians saying inaccurate medical information has made it harder to treat patients and has impacted patient outcomes, according to a Morning Consult poll conducted on behalf of the de Beaumont Foundation.

This comes after nearly three years of a global pandemic that put healthcare in the crosshairs of medical misinformation. Indeed, medical misinformation existed before COVID-19, but the politicization of the pandemic made the issue ripe for inaccurate and misleading medical information.

The more than 800 physicians included in the survey indicated that politicization and misleading medical claims have had a spillover effect on actual medical practice. Around four in 10 (44 percent) physicians said that half the research their patients bring into the exam room is inaccurate.

Seventy-two percent of respondents said medical misinformation makes it harder for them to treat their patients, and the same proportion said medical misinformation has adversely impacted patient outcomes.

Take, for example, the COVID-19 vaccine. Surveyed physicians overwhelmingly support the vaccine, with 92 percent saying it is safe and 91 percent of them saying it is effective. Nearly all (92 percent) of physicians said COVID-19 has killed millions of Americans.

But patients don’t see it that way. Only around two-thirds acknowledged the death toll COVID-19 has had, and similarly low proportions agree that the vaccine is safe and effective. That level of skepticism, which is not rooted in medical fact, has dissuaded people from getting the vaccines and may have impacted health outcomes.

“These findings are important for two reasons,” Brian C. Castrucci, DrPH, president and CEO of de Beaumont, said publicly. “First, it shows that despite the voices of a small majority, physicians almost universally agree that COVID vaccines are safe and effective. Second, misinformation isn’t going away. It’s not a COVID problem, but one that pervades many areas of health.”

Physicians are more likely than patients to perceive the threat of medical misinformation. For example, 51 percent of physicians said medical misinformation spread by providers is a big problem; only 41 percent of laypeople said the same.

There is considerable discordance in how patients and providers perceive medical misinformation about COVID-19, in particular. While more than 80 percent of physicians said misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and treatments is a big problem, only 69 and 66 percent of patients, respectively, agreed.

But it’s more than just COVID-19. Physicians noted that medical misinformation about weight loss, mental health, and other vaccines are all issues.

In terms of fixing the issue, it is apparent that physicians and other medical professionals have a role to play. While patients are more likely to pin blame on physicians for misleading information about the spread of COVID, the effectiveness of vaccines, and the effectiveness of masks, physicians are taking it upon themselves to remedy the problem.

More than three-quarters of physicians said it is on them and their peers to combat medical misinformation about the spread of COVID, the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, other vaccines, off-label use of drugs like hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID, and the efficacy of masks.

Physicians said there are some issues that will make debunking those untruths difficult. For one thing, patients mostly trust sources of which physicians themselves are skeptical: the internet and social media websites. While physicians are more trusting of academic journals, patients are more willing to use online web searches and Facebook or Twitter to learn more about medical issues.

There is also the small but loud group of physicians that may be helping spread these falsities.

Physician respondents said there should be some consequences for providers who spread medical misinformation: 85 agree with a warning for a first offense, 73 percent endorsed a fine for a second offense, 70 percent agreed with a temporary loss of license for a third offense, and 63 percent agreed with a permanent loss of license for a fourth offense.

Despite these hurdles, debunking medical misinformation may not entirely be the uphill battle physicians fear it is. For one thing, physicians are vastly overestimating the proportion of patients with whom they have lost trust. While physicians estimated they lost trust with 68 percent of patients, that number is more like 21 percent, according to patient respondents.

If anything, trust levels have stayed about the same. Instead, physicians may be contending with a more vocal group who has lost trust in medicine, or they may be facing higher stakes in the spread of medical misinformation.

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