Misinformation in Healthcare – a long-standing issue

A chartered physiotherapist’s view

By Paul Bolger. Chartered Physiotherapist. 

The Oxford Dictionary describes misinformation as “the dissemination of false information, either knowing it to be false (see disinformation), or unknowingly.” The EU and other bodies are scrambling to reduce its harmful effects via social media and messaging platforms.

While many of us are aware of this issue in relation to our society and politics, it has always been present in healthcare.

Misinformation is not always intentional

Some people knowingly spread misleading messages about health – anyone who has seen the insightful series ‘Dopesick’ will be able to tell you about lies that were spread that have been critical in causing the opioid epidemic in the US.

However, in healthcare, many well-intentioned people give false information without meaning to. Often this does not affect somebody negatively. For example, in the physiotherapy world, many painful conditions (such as an ankle sprain or back strain) will settle in time. So even if someone is given ineffective treatment or information, they are still likely to recover.

However, there can be a niggling, subtle harm that well-intentioned misinformation can inflict.

Beliefs influence health

You read that correctly – what you believe can influence your health. This is backed by rigorous scientific evidence.

That is not to say that you can simply ‘think’ yourself to wellbeing or sickness – there is much more to it than that.

Consider this – you receive a medical test/scan. You go down one of two paths:

  1. You are given the message that you are damaged, things will get worse with time, and you must stop doing activities that you love.
  2. You are given the message that you have an issue that is manageable, a plan is put in place to help, and you are told that you can still do many activities that you love.

How would you feel in either of these situations? Would your behaviour be influenced for better or for worse?

Unfortunately, some people come away from healthcare appointments with the first message. It is true that there are some ailments that we can currently do very little about medically. But many common and very manageable conditions – such as back pain – can be made worse with harmful messaging.

With well-informed and helpful guidance, we can change our beliefs for the better. We begin to see ourselves as more capable, more robust, more adaptable and capable of getting back to the things that give our lives meaning.

Us healthcare providers should ask ourselves, when informing those in our care – “Is this true?”; Is this helpful?”.

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