Conspiracy theories are not new to the field of medicine, and the advent of social media has only exacerbated this problem. According to research, people have access to a much greater amount of false information, rumours, and hoaxes than trustworthy information. This can lead to many harmful consequences for patients in dire need of accurate medical guidance. As a believable and authoritative source, it’s therefore the physician’s responsibility to debunk myths and disseminate current and reliable information.
What Is Medical Misinformation and How Prevalent Is It?
The COVID-19 pandemic has facilitated a meteoric rise in medical misinformation (caused by misconceptions or misinterpretation of information) and disinformation (caused by the deliberate spread of incorrect information) to such an extent that the World Health Organization declared vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten threats to global health in 2019. Vaccine hesitancy is essentially a phenomenon where people refuse to get vaccinated despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine due to various false beliefs or distrust in the medical system or pharmaceutical companies. Many other medical myths and disinformation related to the origin and spread of the pandemic, COVID-19 treatment, and COVID-19 vaccines have become widespread owing to the mainstream media and the internet as a whole.
While seemingly harmless, this type of misinformation can be detrimental to vulnerable and confused patients seeking care.
How Does Misinformation Impact Patients?
Studies have shown that fake news can affect overall public health by decreasing COVID-19 vaccine compliance and adherence to treatment.
In addition, the conflict and confusion caused by the spread of falsehoods and rumours can heighten COVID-19-related psychological distress, resulting in increased anxiety, depression, insomnia, and stress among patients.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, medical misinformation can cause people to engage in risky health behaviours and dangerous practices like washing food products in bleach and ingesting or applying household cleaners on the skin.
Finally, it can decrease patient visits to healthcare institutes for preventive care, chronic conditions, and illnesses not related to COVID, resulting in delayed care.
What Are Some Common Myths About the COVID-19 Vaccine?
Here are 10 of the most common myths related to the COVID-19 vaccine that are absolutely untrue:
- COVID-19 vaccines affect your DNA or cause infertility.
- COVID-19 vaccines involve the insertion of microchips that can track or monitor you.
- Herd immunity will end the pandemic, so a vaccine isn’t required.
- COVID-19 vaccines will make you sick or give you COVID.
- COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe or unreliable because they were developed too quickly.
- COVID-19 vaccines don’t work on newer or mutated strains of the virus.
- Once you get COVID-19, you’re immune and can’t get it again.
- If you’re vaccinated, you no longer need to wear masks or take any precautions.
- COVID-19 vaccines contain many controversial ingredients or have harmful side effects.
- Flu and pneumonia vaccines can also protect you against COVID-19.
How Can Primary Care Physicians Address These Myths in Practice?
Because such false claims and hoaxes are now spread worldwide, it’s that much more important for physicians and healthcare providers to shed light on the truth, educate patients, and minimize the influence of commonly held incorrect beliefs to prevent any adverse effects on patients. Here are some tips on how to address these myths and promote patient safety:
- Increase patient understanding by calmly explaining medical concepts in simple language and easy-to-grasp terms.
- Share relevant literature or data from experts with patients to support your claims and increase their sense of trust.
- Don’t be dismissive of their concerns as this can make them feel unheard or powerless, making them resistant to the truth.
- Encourage patients to communicate and feel empowered by resolving their queries and addressing their concerns.
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