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Determining the real from the fake health news

A Temple cardiologist offers 10 tips to detect and deflect what can be useless at best, harmful at worst.


The American Dialect Society voted "fake news" its Word of the Year for 2017, saluting the phrase for its double meanings as "disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news" and "actual news that is claimed to be untrue."

Fake news of either kind is a problem in politics, to be sure. But misleading or erroneous medical news is potentially even worse. It is scary, can lead to poor decisions, and may even hurt the credibility of all health-care providers by making it look as if medicine is not trustworthy.

Fake health news can be divided into at least three categories.

  1. Junk news that wastes your time, but doesn't necessarily harm your health. For example, a recent study in BMJ Heart looked at chocolate and suggested that eating it up to three times a month might decrease your risk of developing atrial fibrillation, compared with not eating it at all. This does not mean that chocolate is good for you, just that the researchers found a possible association between some consumption and an irregular heart rhythm. The headline that followed in the New York Times was "Why chocolate may be good for the heart." News like this is probably harmless, although it offers no real benefit (except for news organizations that might get an increase in readership or viewership).

  2. Misleading information with real potential to be harmful. A recent study that got some press (including a small item in the Inquirer) suggested that women taking a kind of blood pressure medication called a calcium channel blocker might increase their risk of getting pancreatic cancer by a shocking-sounding 66 percent. I had more than a dozen calls about this from worried patients who understandably wanted to stop their medication – and I had to quickly reassure them, because if they had discontinued the medication, the danger to their health would have been very real. Here is why this was fake news. First, the study looked at only a short-acting type of medication which isn't even used anymore to treat hypertension. Second, this report was not published in a peer-reviewed journal, only reported at a scientific meeting, meaning it had a far lower bar to clear. Third, an association between a drug and cancer does not mean the drug caused the cancer. Fourth, statistics are easily manipulated. Pancreatic cancer is very uncommon, so even if the risk is doubled, chances of getting it are still very small. Also, other studies have shown that calcium channel blockers may actually prevent pancreatic cancer.

  3. Fake news that is so clearly dangerous, it's hard to believe that the people repeating it don't know what they are doing. An example is the claim that vaccines we give to children are tied to autism. But there never has been any proof of this "link." Yes, children are diagnosed with autism after getting vaccines. But that does not prove cause. The clear medical/scientific truth is that vaccines prevent many infectious diseases, and not receiving a vaccine because of misinformation is dangerous to both a child and society.

What can you do to avoid falling for fake health news?  Look out for these potential red flags:

  1. The "news" sounds like a press release aimed at selling something. Almost weekly, a patient will bring me an ad or article, or (and this happens a lot) tell me they heard about something on the Dr. Oz show. It's almost always dubious — at best.

  2. An article makes sweeping conclusions that are not supported by the actual information. An example of this is the article about chocolate's beneficial effects on the heart.

  3. The "news" pops up on Facebook and gets a lot of "likes." This is not an indicator of truth, just something people want to believe. See: chocolate and your heart.

  4. The suggestion that this is a cure or treatment that "your doctor will not tell you about" because the medical establishment is keeping it a secret. Please believe me as a physician: I want to help my patients. So do my colleagues. We are terrible secret-keepers if we know of anything that works.

  5. The remedy has been studied only on mice. This doesn't mean it helps humans, only that it needs more research.

  6. The information appears in a publication you have never heard of. When an article is in a peer-reviewed journal, such as JAMA or the New England Journal of Medicine, other experts in the field have reviewed the information and found it valuable. The type of study matters, too: Is it double-blinded to eliminate bias? Is it a study of hundreds or, better yet, thousands of people?

  7. Purchasing the product would financially benefit the author or subject of the article.

  8. If the study was sponsored by the pharmaceutical, supplement, or device industry that is peddling the product under review, the information may be slanted.

  9. Your main source of information is Dr. Google. The internet can be a wonderful source of information. It also can lead you down a rabbit hole of misinformation. Again, don't trust websites you have never heard of. Look for information from the National Institutes of Health and reputable universities and hospitals. If you have questions, check with your doctor.

  10. It sounds too good to be true. Many "fast and easy" weight-loss claims fit this category. I has been my experience that such claims are never true.

David Becker, M.D., is a frequent Inquirer contributor and a board-certified cardiologist with Chestnut Hill Temple Cardiology in Flourtown, Pa. He has been in practice for 25 years.