Finding credible health information in the age of misinformation

Who and what sources can you trust?


We live in an age of information overload. Distinguishing what is credible and what isn’t is no easy task.

When it comes to health, finding reputable information is crucial because the results of misinformation can have broad and serious adverse consequences for individuals and society.


Misinformation is defined as information that conflicts with the best scientific evidence at the time.

Disinformation is misinformation intentionally spread to trick people into believing something for financial gain or political advantage.

These two are difficult to distinguish. Both are potentially dangerous to individual and public health.

Why this matters

In 2021, amid the pandemic, the Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, M.D.  published a powerful national advisory document entitled:

Confronting Health Misinformation


His opening paragraph of the 22-page document is worth reprinting here:

In 2021, amid the pandemic, the Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, M.D.  published a powerful national advisory document entitled: Confronting Health Misinformation
In 2021, amid the pandemic, the Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, M.D. published a powerful national advisory document entitled: Confronting Health …

“I am urging all Americans to help slow the spread of health misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health information is a moral and civic responsibility that will require a whole-of-society effort. “

Here are some examples of how misinformation is a threat to individual and public health:

  • In the early 1990s, MMR and other vaccine fears resulted from a poorly designed study published (and later retracted). The result of one person’s research and the misinformation it broadcast resulted in overall lower immunization rates in children. As a result, measles outbreaks occurred in several states including our own.
  • Misinformation can cause fear and reduce some people’s willingness to seek effective treatment for treatable diseases leading to unnecessary suffering and even premature death.
  • During the pandemic, a legion of false claims were promoted and believed, reducing vaccination rates, and increasing exposure and deaths from COVID-19. Here are some of the FALSE CLAIMS:
  1. Covid-19 vaccines cause infertility
  2. More people have died from the vaccine than the disease
  3. Ivermectin is an effective treatment
  4. And a story told to me by an RN working in a hospital ICU north of here:  4 men lay dying of multisystem failure, on life support systems for months after intentionally attending a party to be exposed to the virus (without vaccination). Their slow and unnecessary deaths caused needless burden on the already strained hospital and staff. Even as they teetered between life and death, they never believed they had COVID-19 rudely blaming the medical staff for their illness.

Misinformation during COVID-19 reduced TRUST in science and public health measures, caused confusion, hindered efforts to vaccinate Americans, and divided families, friends, and communities.

What does social media and the Internet have to do with it? 

50% of adults are on social media sometimes and at least 10% turn to social media for health information - https://www.forbes.com/sites/debgordon/2021/10/06/1-in-10-americans-turn-to-social-media-for-health-information-new-survey-shows/?sh=179bbef33d93

On social media, credibility is suspect, much is not vetted, and misinformation can spread like wildfire. Sensational posts spread faster than sensible ones. Many false posts “go viral” from which the term info-demic has been coined. It is a fact that enemy nations post disinformation on social media with the intent to polarize our society! Further amplifying the problem, social media algorithm platforms are set up to deliver more of what you look at and share.

Most of us prefer to rely on and endorse information from expert sources but in some cases, we cannot know if someone is truly an expert.

At least 25% of us use search engines to evaluate new treatment options and medication side effect information. Search algorithms (Google and Safari, for instance) are always changing, opaque, and unverified for the most part. They are not a reliable source of health information.

When I was in practice, my patients used Google to try to figure out what was wrong with them and brought their printed internet responses to their appointments.  That was years before Artificial Intelligence (AI).  I cannot imagine what is happening these days.

 AI (Artificial Intelligence) offers answers that sound authoritative and are sometimes accurate.  On an internet search, it is not always clear whether answers are generated by AI or a human, reliable and verifiable, or not.  AI is known to hallucinate à it makes things up.

I am certain we will find amazing including lifesaving uses for AI. That said, it is very early in this technology’s life for its safety to be worked out.

What are the antidotes to this misinformation problem?

I share ideas from the Surgeon General and other scientific leaders working to combat the misinformation problems we face.

  • Misinformation will thrive when credible and easily accessible information is absent.
  • It will flourish when there is societal division, animosity, and distrust including in science and the healthcare systems which is happening for the myriad of reasons I’ve been writing about in these columns.
  • During the pandemic. I felt the public message from science and our healthcare leaders was, unfortunately, less robust than the ‘fake news’ that came from the most inappropriate sources including politicians.
  • Health authorities and professional associations need also to use technology and media platforms to share accurate health information with the public. Accessible and credible, widely disseminated, including on social media.
  • Governments need to increase resources and technical assistance to state and local public health agencies so that they can modernize and expand their public health communications.
  • Educators can help by teaching resilience to health misinformation and ways to find verifiable scientific information. This needs to be at all levels of education, from elementary and college students to medical and scientific professionals. Even the landscape of medical literature can be a minefield these days.
  • All of us need to learn how to distinguish what is reliable from what is not and to read credible news and information sources.
  • Technology platforms need to invest in and take responsibility for addressing the harm that misinformation and fake posts cause as well as to undertake meaningful long-term investments into product changes to change this trajectory.
  • Journalists and media organizations have a role in correcting and avoiding the amplification of misinformation, to proactively address the public’s questions (reach out to me please if you have a topic in mind) and use headlines and images to inform rather than shock. I believe we are doing this at The Jolt.

With technology’s rampant growth, it will take a colossal effort for education and safety features to be developed, researched, and implemented and as the Surgeon General says,

“…we can work toward a healthier information environment – one that empowers us to build a healthier, kinder, and more connected world.”

What can you, a responsible person, do?

You can get your health information from trustworthy sources.  Here are some in our midst:

  • Your DOCTOR(s): ask them what you need to know and if you need to know more where to find that information
  • Your PHARMACIST – use them for any medication-related details (side effects, interactions), and develop a relationship with one if you can (yes, they have been corporatized making relationships more difficult to find). Pharmacists have doctorate degrees and are trained and want to guide their customers and patients.
  • Local and state health departments have websites. Check them out. These in clude the Washington State Department of Health and Thurston County Public Health and Social Services. These local organizations offer verifiable health information. People trust local sources and we need them to be visible and vocal.
  • The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC) is our national treasure trove of verifiable health information. They have a robust and user-friendly website, search engine, and responsive staff. During COVID-19, I observed the CDC’s message to be temporarily politically controlled which undermined the historical scientific reliability it has been known for.  I no longer find this to be the case. The site is exceptionally helpful for travel warnings and recommendations. And much more.
  • The Coalition for Trust in Health and Science is working to combat misinformation and mistrust. It is worth a click on the link and perusal of this excellent website’s valuable health resources.
  • The Office of the U.S. Surgeon General has reports and publications on many important topics, including disease prevention, health literacy, loneliness, and much more.
  • Last but not least, read The JOLT (yay, you are right now!) and keep reading this column for health information. As a retired physician, I have no conflicts of interest to disclose nor financial incentives to write what I do.

The JOLT may not be as sensational as social media, but it is reliable, and it is ours. Keep reading for reliable local news! Thank you. 

Debra L. Glasser, M.D., is a retired internal medicine physician in Olympia. Got a question for her? Write drdebra@theJOLTnews.com


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  • hptrillium

    Thanks for all the good information.

    Wednesday, June 5 Report this