Last month, in a blog post about patient health literacy, I briefly mentioned that the internet has markedly increased patient access to health information. While this can be considered a positive in many situations (patient education, medical research, or situations where there are temporary limitations to healthcare access), it must be managed accurately and responsibly to avoid negative consequences.

In the past, the dissemination of health information primarily came in one of two ways. It was either:

  1. Delivered directly to a patient by a provider, or
  2. Announced by a governing body.

Today, delivery methods have increased exponentially. Health information is available on computers and smartphones with the click of a button, but it’s not always accurate. It is our responsibility to ensure that unreliable information is identified. We can do this by leveraging the same technology used to disseminate some of the claims.  

The first step in ensuring that our patients have access to safe, reliable health information is creating and sharing reputable online resources.

Promoting existing content

Most healthcare providers have professional websites to increase their online presence and provide general information about their practice. New and existing patients frequently visit these sites to learn about clinic hours, location, and provider credentials. What if they were also able to access a curated list of verified distributors of accurate healthcare information? Providers should peruse online resources related to their field of practice, vet them for accuracy, and include links to the reliable ones on their website.

Creating additional content

Though it may be time-consuming, it is beneficial if a provider or healthcare organization makes a conscious effort to address inaccuracies in their respective field by creating trustworthy content. The benefit is two-fold. First, if well-written, it improves the online relevancy of other sources publishing similar information, making it more likely that the search engines deliver the most accurate results first. Second, it potentially offers an opposing opinion when read in conjunction with less reliable information. The juxtaposition can create uncertainty that may prompt a patient to contact their healthcare provider for clarification.

Disputing false claims

Another step providers can take to combat the dissemination of unreliable health information is to actively identify and dispute claims that are inaccurate. I recognize that it is nearly impossible to find and refute every inaccurate statement on the internet. It is not unreasonable, however, for a member of a healthcare team to periodically spend a small amount of time responding to inaccurate claims on some of the more popular industry forums. To do this effectively, healthcare professionals need to make sure their responses include links back to their own website or other trusted resources that provide accurate information. It’s important to also refer patients to their provider, and encourage them to seek answers from professional, verified sources only.

Battling the dissemination of inaccurate health information is a complex and never-ending task. It is important that the medical community utilizes the same technology responsible for distributing unreliable claims to share trustworthy and reliable information with patients.