Tips for combatting medical misinformation in the exam room

Follow these tips to avoid spreading false medical information.

Medical misinformation is all too common these days, especially as many try to politicize public health recommendations. While doctors are not immune from these narratives, we are still expected to follow evidence-based practices. Even though we try our best to follow best clinical practices, misinformation often creeps up in the course of patient encounters. It is easy to grow frustrated when this happens but it’s important to remember that it often comes from a good place: our patients trust us to give them the real information.

What can be done to handle discussions around medical misinformation?

First, know the facts.

Everyone is talking about public health since the pandemic started. It is often hard to know who the real experts are. It is imperative, as the experts that our patients trust, to get the right information. We need to know what the medial authorities, such as the CDC, WHO, and our medical societies are saying. We need to understand the data they are publishing. For example, if they report on studies showing that a vaccine is 95% effective, that is the data we need to share with our patients. If we say they always work, that would be wrong information. If we say some doctor on Instagram says there is a study that shows they don’t work at all, that would be wrong as well. Know the trusted sources and know what they are saying. We can’t share reliable information when we don’t have it.

Follow clinical guidelines from appropriate medical societies.

There are many medical societies and groups out there. During our careers, we learn those that we can depend on to get accurate information and serve as a guide for us. For those of us in family practice, the American Academy of Family Practice is such a medical authority on all things family medicine. Each specialty has their own governing society. These societies tend to release clinical guidelines on the treatment and prevention of diseases we may encounter in the course of our medical practice. We should be following these guidelines as appropriate. There are also outlier medical groups publishing conflicting recommendations. When they conflict with the oldest, most-known authorities, then there is a good chance that they are wrong.

Address specific concerns that the patients have.

We can give the patient a ton of information but unless we address what they are actually concerned about, we lost them. For example, we can tell a patient that the COVID vaccine is safe but if their only concern is that it may cause infertility, we fail if we don’t reassure them on that point. We need to listen and ask what specific concerns they have

Don’t be condescending.

While something may seem ridiculous to us as healthcare providers, it may be completely reasonable to our patients. We need to understand where they are coming from and try to understand why they believe something that may be obviously misinformed. Maybe they heard it from a close family member or a role model they followed all their lives. Ridiculing these others is not going to bring patients closer to the truth. A family member may be trying to keep their loved one from harm. We need to be empathetic and not undermining.

Take time to answer questions.

I often hear from patients that the specialists didn’t take time to answer their questions. Patients are not going to follow our advice if they don’t feel confident about that decision. During the pandemic, we’re busier than ever before. However, our patients probably have more questions than ever before. Answering the patients questions about the vaccine may save time down the road when we convince them to get vaccinated rather than treating them when they become infected.

If you don’t know, say so.

As a doctor, it is hard to admit when we don’t know something. Yet, we don’t know everything and it is wrong to give patients made-up or half-truthed answers. This may just feed in to mistrust and falling for other misinformation. If we don’t know something, it is OK that we say so and then commit to finding the answer for the patient. Don’t be a source of misinformation.

Don’t say things on social media that you don’t stand by in real life.

There are doctors on social media that are the source of much misinformation. It is easy to fall into the political arguments surrounding public health policy. However, it’s always best to assume whatever you say on social media is available to the public eye and patients are following it.

Misinformation has been around for a long time but never more pertinent than it seems these days. It is driving politics and economies. Everyone has an opinion on it. Yet, science is an undisputable truth that doesn’t care what anyone thinks about it. As doctors, we are called to be champions for that truth and for the well-being of our patients. Are you ready to take a stand against misinformation?

Linda Girgis, MD, is a family physician in private practice in South River, N.J. She is also the author of six books, the editor-In-chief of Physician’s Weekly and a widely-published author. You can find more of her work at www.drlinda-md.com or follow her on twitter @DrLindaMD.