The widespread circulation of false health information on various media portals is a particular concern. These baseless claims are potentially harmful, while others are outright dangerous to the unsuspecting audience. More often than not, the perpetrators have ulterior financial motives that propagate them into the business.

Conspiracy theories versus evidence-based medicine

The public has an infatuation with conspiracy theories. Studies have shown that sensational but false claims about serious health conditions were often more widely circulated than evidence-based information from reputable sources. For example, in the US alone, more than 30% of the population believed pharmaceutical companies intentionally obstruct the release of natural cures to cancer in order to protect financial interests.

Such observation is, of course, reasonable. Human beings are emotional creatures. When presented with information that is specifically worded to elicit strong emotions, it is hard to resist the temptation to react with equally strong responses. This is especially true for those who are ill-informed about medicine.

Media platforms are motivated by profits

Many of the news portals and social media platforms are financially motivated to circulate viral posts. It is not challenging to find that almost all of these websites have affiliations with other e-commerce sites.

By channelling readers to these sites, the news portals will then earn lucrative commissions when the unwary readers make any purchases at the sites. In certain cases, commissions will be given even when the readers do not make any purchases, but have simply visited the web page. News portals, particularly online tabloids, also make money by manipulating the online traffic and channelling readers to designated websites.

News outlets may be spreading inaccurate medical advice

In 2015, an article that chronicled the story of a young British mother who refused the conventional cancer treatments offered by the NHS was published. Instead, she had opted to cure herself through herbal medicine and raw vegetable diets. The article has since received more than two thousand “shares” on major social networks.

What was more shocking, however, was that the news outlet had linked the readers to another website - one that recommended black salve as an alternative to cancer treatment. The composition of the black salve product varies but is typically made of powdered bloodroot (from the bloodroot plant) and zinc oxide.

There is currently little evidence to support the use of black salve to replace conventional cancer treatment, nor as an adjunct therapy.

Showing consideration towards patients with serious illness

One cannot help but wonder why these “fake news” are capable of generating so much impact that ripples through the media so widely. Additionally, most of the articles focus on a narrow range of serious diseases, particularly cancer.

It has become clear that the perpetrators intend to exploit the fear and uncertainties surrounding these diseases. Healthcare practitioners cannot, however, entirely blame individuals who fall for these "fake news" and accuse them of being ignorant. Rather, as an integral member of the healthcare continuum, it is crucial to provide better support and counselling to these patients during these difficult times. MIMS

Read more:
The dangers of fake medical research
Tackling fake medical news: The role of media to fact-check vigorously
Ethical controversies in today’s medical research

Oliver JE, Wood T. Medical Conspiracy Theories and Health Behaviors in the United States. JAMA Intern Med. 2014 May 1;174(5):817.