Analysis

There's an epidemic of bogus health claims online, and no easy cure

Can turmeric really cure cancer? Is the HIV virus actually a conspiracy concocted by the Illuminati? Are vaccines responsible for food allergies in children?

Distrust of institutions fuels medical myths, and social media only reinforces false claims

It's not hard to find unsubstantiated claims about human health online. (CBC)

Can turmeric really cure cancer? Is the HIV virus actually a conspiracy concocted by the Illuminati? Are vaccines responsible for food allergies in children?

All the scientific evidence points to no, but these ideas are spreading, thanks in part to social media and a growing distrust of medical experts and government.

"There is so much misleading information out there that it's a real challenge for us," said Jay Robinson, president of the B.C. Chiropractic Association.

"We're constantly faced with the battle of getting accurate, verifiable and true information out to our members."

In the last two months, CBC reporting has revealed a number of healthcare workers who've spread some of this misinformation, including chiropractors suggesting vaccines are dangerous or ineffective, and naturopaths claiming to eliminate autism with homeopathy.

And the experts suggest some of those unscientific claims are creeping into the more conventional medical professions.

'You feel like you're being listened to'

But when it comes to human health, there doesn't seem to be an easy answer for preventing the spread of bogus claims, and there's evidence some attempts to counter false information can backfire, as Facebook is learning as it tries to crack down on hoaxes and fake news.

An emergency preparedness pamphlet issued by Sweden's government warns of the increasing risk of misleading information and offers tips for sorting out truth from rumour. (Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency)

Health professionals told CBC they're frustrated by the role of social media. It's not only used to spread false information, but it also allows like-minded people to reinforce each other's unsubstantiated beliefs.

At the same time, people who share phoney health claims on social media often have legitimate reasons for being skeptical of conventional medicine, according to Timothy Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta.

They're often concerned about the outsized role that pharmaceutical companies play in health research, he said, or disillusioned by doctors who only have time for brief visits with each patient.

Caulfield has tried just about every unscientific therapy out there, and he understands the appeal of the more personal approach.

"You feel like you're being listened to, you feel like they're providing you with an answer that's tailored to your needs. It's just a really pleasant experience," he said.

He wants to see more qualified medical professionals and government officials speaking out on social media and engaging with the public to understand why they're distrustful of proven treatments.

Dr. Bonnie Henry has addressed several dubious health claims in recent CBC stories. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

But that's a delicate thing to do. A recent editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal points out that when experts talk down to people, that can further alienate folks who already have their doubts about science and conventional medicine.

B.C.'s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, recently watched this phenomenon unfold in her email inbox.

The messages came after she spoke out against the use of a homeopathic remedy made from the saliva of a rabid dog and called for sanctions on the vice-chair of the College of Chiropractors for suggesting fruit smoothies are more effective than the flu vaccine.

 "Some people accused me of being in cahoots with Big Pharma," she said. 

Still, she tries to respond to every email. She says the key is to be respectful of people's beliefs and transparent — both about conflicts of interest and the limitations of what science can tell us.

Calls for stricter regulations

UBC nursing professor Bernie Garrett has studied internet health scams extensively, and he argues what's needed is stronger government legislation and better enforcement from professional colleges to limit the spread of claims that aren't based in scientific evidence.

This approach has its limits, too. As Henry's experience suggests, from the perspective of someone who already distrusts institutions, well-meaning government intervention might look like censorship.

On a professional level, Garrett says unscientific practices aren't just an issue in the alternative and complementary health worlds.

He takes issue with his own regulator, the College of Registered Nurses of B.C., for allowing RNs to provide what he describes as "faith-based" remedies on a private basis.

"As a nurse, I can, for example, sell services such as beer spas … using my RN title to do that," Garrett alleged.

Yes, there are spas that advertise health benefits from bathing in beer. (Shutterstock / Rades)

A few years back, Garrett complained to the college about an RN who was offering "therapeutic touch," which involves someone placing their hands near or lightly on a patient, supposedly healing the body by bringing "energy fields" into harmony.

But the college said it considers therapeutic touch to be acceptable, a decision that was upheld by the Health Professions Review Board.

For its part, the college describes regulating alternative health practices as a "complex issue" and says its regulations are constantly under review. College spokesperson Johanna Ward said nurses are obliged to adhere to the same professional standards when offering alternative therapies as they do when providing mainstream care.

Cracking down isn't simple

There are some who argue it may be necessary to take the fight against misinformation straight to the source — the private tech companies like Facebook and YouTube whose platforms allow myths and scams to proliferate.

In a recent column for the science publication Undark, writer Michael Schulson contends that the commercial interests and algorithms for those websites feed into a cycle of misinformation. Someone who watches one video from an AIDS denialist, for example, will suddenly find YouTube suggesting a bunch more in the same vein — and many of those videos are monetized with ads from major corporations.

But as Facebook has discovered, cracking down on "fake news" can be extremely tricky.

In the fallout from the 2016 U.S. election, the social media giant tried putting little red flags on false stories. But the flags actually fired up some users who desperately wanted to believe, and they became even more likely to share those hoaxes.

In the end, Garrett believes there are some people who just can't be reached. The key, he believes, is to contain the spread of misinformation.

"These are generally people who won't change their mind, whatever the evidence is," he said. "What we do need to do is protect the public from the implications of people who believe those sorts of things."

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay has more than a decade of experience in B.C. journalism, with a focus on the courts, health and social justice issues. She has also reported on human rights and crimes against humanity in Cambodia. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.