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Healthy truth

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SPH faculty and alumni offer perspectives and solutions to America’s misinformation crisis.

At first, Katrine Wallace, PhD ’13 with a concentration in epidemiology, could only shake her head.

Amid the photos of family members’ dogs and friends’ newly adopted pandemic-era routines, Wallace also discovered rampant misinformation about COVID-19 littering her own social media feeds as the pandemic disrupted American life in early 2020. She recalls a post linking the virus to 5G towers and one especially startling declaration: that COVID-19, which would contribute to an estimated 14.9 million excess deaths throughout 2020 and 2021 per World Health Organization data, wasn’t a disease at all but rather a fabrication designed to rattle the 2020 U.S. election.

“As a public health person, a trained epidemiologist, I felt a sense of duty to offer explanations and information,” said Wallace, who was regularly fielding questions and concerns about COVID-19 from family and friends as well. Wallace has since posted hundreds of videos to her TikTok feed (@epidemiologistkat), enthusiastically and earnestly dishing out evidence-based public health information to counter rampant misinformation about COVID-19 and other oft-misunderstood public health issues. Her TikTok has soared to 275,000 followers and 5.5 million likes, elevating Wallace, an adjunct assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the UIC School of Public Health, into a high-profile public health figure featured in media outlets like the Washington Post and at events like the Nobel Prize Summit.

For Wallace, TikTok – quite ironically a significant vector of health-related misinformation over recent years – has become her own antidote to battle misguided thoughts, conspiracy theories and the like.

“As public health people, we all have the responsibility to set the record straight as much as we can,” Wallace said.

A prevalent, pesky problem Heading link

The misinformation vortex is far reaching and varied, applying to physical health conditions such as COVID-19 as well as mental health conditions, such as depression,
anxiety and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In a recent study published in the Journal of Canadian Psychiatry, for instance, researchers investigated the content quality of the 100 most popular TikTok videos about ADHD, one of the social media platform’s most discussed health topics. Using proven assessment tools, the researchers classified 52 percent of the videos as misleading and only 21 percent “useful.”

The volume and velocity of health misinformation cluttering cyberspace cannot be ignored, especially as people increasingly turn online for health information. A 2021 study from the American Health Information Management Association Foundation reported three in five individuals consult the Internet for health information. And once there, 86 percent deem the content they find credible. Now to be certain, the Internet does host valid health information from a range of reputable providers. SPH’s Collaboratory for Health Justice, for example, developed evidence-based decision trees in 17 different languages to help people determine if they should pursue COVID-19 testing. Universities, government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control, professional organizations such as the American Medical Association and established healthcare enterprises like the Mayo Clinic also provide reliable guidance on a diverse assortment of health matters.

However, a rather sizable – and swelling – collection of online content is produced by non-healthcare providers and, even more troubling, influencer types with a vested interest in peddling specific information, such as a supplement or paid service. While some of this content can be valid, misinformation can stir unnecessary anxiety and impact individuals’ decision-making about clinical care. As one example, a widely spread fallacy about the presence of microchips in COVID-19 vaccines prompted some people to reject the shot.

Confronting misinformation Heading link

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, has labeled health misinformation “a serious threat to public health” and urged prudent action.

“It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health and undermine public health efforts,” Murthy wrote in a 2021 advisory. “Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.”

For so long, Wallace said, public health’s prevailing philosophy when confronting misinformation was to ignore it, largely to avoid shining any light on erroneous claims. More and more, however, public health practitioners are playing offense and actively relaying evidence-based information from credible sources.

“As public health experts, we know where the good info is, and we’re the ones trained to read and interpret data,” Wallace said. “Now, our responsibility is to verify before we amplify because what we say has ripple effects.”

While pursuing her MPH at George Washington University, Meredith Hernlund, BA in Public Health ’19, became one of the earliest project managers on
the Health Communication Volunteer Corps (HCVC). The group crafted and then ran health-related social media posts through layers of fact checking and approvals before publication. Initially addressing COVID-19, HCVC later tackled other health topics, such as addiction and environmental health.

“It takes layers and steps to get out a product that’s truthful and accounts for a broad audience, but that’s what we did,” said Hernlund, now an occupational safety and health research communications specialist with MDB, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations and communications firm.

Everyone can contribute Heading link

Such public communication efforts are a notable start, but much more will be needed to counter misinformation.

Public health practitioners, for instance, can proactively engage with patients and correct misinformation in understandable, personalized ways. Practitioners might also partner with community groups to develop appropriate and accessible evidence-based messaging and, as Wallace does with TikTok, use technology as a megaphone for well-founded content.

Researchers, meanwhile, might highlight the scope of the problem and propose thoughtful interventions to policymakers and private enterprises. This can include efforts to quantify the harm of misinformation as well as evaluating the effectiveness of strategies to combat health misinformation. Finally, health communications, a relatively nascent field, needs to prosper – and quick. Hernlund hopes to see students and professionals alike gain communication and marketing skills by enrolling in applicable courses and certificate programs as well as engaging with professional organizations like the National Public Health Information Coalition and the Public Health Communications Collaborative. She would also like to see public health communicators brought to the table quicker amid an emergency, so they can proactively address
public concerns with evidence-based information.

“Ultimately, we all want the same result, which is making sure people understand complex health topics and have appropriate information in hand,” Hernlund said. “With all the health misinformation out there, that’s not something we can do today by standing still.”