Fake news can damage your health: UC report

False and misleading health reports on television could have serious consequences for public health, a University of Canberra pharmacy team has warned.

In a new report, Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Jackson Thomas and his colleagues have called out broadcast media outlets responsible for disseminating ‘fake news’ about illnesses and other medical issues.

The report, Fake news: Medicines misinformation by the media, found thatwhile the media can increase health knowledge, change attitudes and positively influence behaviour, the release of poor and incorrect public health information could have adverse effects on Australians’ health.

Dr Thomas and his fellow researchers reviewed various studies to produce the report and found that:

  • TV viewers placed almost as much trust in information on cancer obtained from the TV (71 per cent) as they did from a physician (93 per cent).
  • The media sometimes dramatises/distorts different illnesses to draw in viewers. For instance, portrayal of mental illness can often emphasise criminality.
  • Poorly designed or evaluated studies contribute to incorrect information disseminated via the mass media – i.e. the pervasive view that vaccines are associated with autism, in spite of the belief being repeatedly refuted by science.
  • Some popular medical talk shows had influential TV doctors sharing medical information with viewers in a relatable, engaging way. But this information was often far-fetched or had no scientific basis.
  • Certain science journalism and documentary programs catalysed large spikes or huge decreases in the use of certain medications, sometimes with potentially dangerous results.
  • Medical dramas differed in adherence to evidence-based guidelines, but across a sample of some of the most popular, medication advice was determined to be appropriate just 24 per cent of the time.

Dr Thomas said members of the public needed to be cautious about where they get their medical advice.

“Don’t just rely on what you see on TV,” Dr Thomas said. “It’s often sponsored or not thoroughly researched. And TV dramas are made for entertainment, not education.

“Trust what you read in peer-reviewed journals. For everything else, check with your doctor or pharmacist before making medical and lifestyle choices, whether that’s about going on a new diet, or changing your medication.”

Dr Thomas said consumers would be less at risk of receiving incorrect information if more trained health professionals are engaged with the media industry.

“Many Hollywood productions have medically-trained advisors who comment on their plotlines after they are developed. We would also suggest a reverse model, in which media-trained medical professionals help to develop accurate content from the start,” Dr Thomas said.

Fake News: Medicines Misinformation by the Media was published in Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics.

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