(See links below to Where to find reliable medical information)
• Suzanne Somers’ Legacy Tainted by Celebrity Medical Misinformation
(Liz Szabo, KFF Health News, 10-18-23. Reprinted by permission)
Before there was Gwyneth Paltrow or Jenny McCarthy or Dr. Oz, there was Suzanne Somers. Somers, who died from complications of breast cancer Oct. 15 at age 76, pioneered the role of celebrity wellness guru, using her sitcom television fame as a springboard to a second career as a self-professed health and beauty expert.
Although younger generations might have never heard of Somers, they still feel her influence, said Timothy Caulfield, a professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?. Somers drew criticism for urging women to defy the medical establishment (she skipped chemotherapy against the advice of her doctor and also championed potentially risky “bioidentical hormones,” which she touted as a more natural alternative to pharmaceutical treatments for menopause).
“She became an influencer on menopause before being an influencer was even a thing,” obstetrician-gynecologist Jen Gunter wrote on her blog on Oct. 17. “Somers almost single-handedly vaulted a fringe, untested medical hypothesis into the mainstream.” Somers’ advice was dangerous then and remains so today, said Gunter, who noted that internet searches for bioidentical hormones would spike after the release of the actress’s books and television appearances. (They surged again after Somers’ death was announced, according to Google Trends.)
Oncologist Otis Brawley, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said he worries that Somers discouraged other breast cancer patients from receiving chemotherapy, which increases the odds of survival despite difficult side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, and hair loss.
In her books and media interviews, Somers also championed alternative medical providers, including ones who sell unproven or discredited therapies. One of those providers, Stanislaw Burzynski, a Houston oncologist, was disciplined by the Texas Medical Board for misleading terminal cancer patients and failing to disclose potential risks associated with his treatment. And while the natural products industry markets its products with photographs of beaches and spring meadows, “underneath that is a lot of fear-mongering and anger and rage,” said Caulfield.
Like Somers, actress and former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy reinvented herself in 2007 as a health advocate, trumpeting the baseless notion that vaccines cause autism and casting doubt on the motives of pediatricians who recommend them. McCarthy famously told Oprah Winfrey that she went to “the University of Google” for her information about vaccine safety, a phrase echoed by modern-day anti-vaccine activists who eschew expert opinion in favor of doing their own research.
The alternative therapies Somers promoted and the conspiracy theories swirling around the internet today go hand in hand, said Gunter, author of “The Menopause Manifesto.” Some celebrities “truly believe they have this special ability to suss out the truth about medicine,” Gunter said. “You can only believe that if you have a narcissistic belief in yourself.” Actress Gwyneth Paltrow also has built a beauty and wellness empire, selling a wide range of dubious products on her website Goop. Paltrow has endorsed placing jade, or yoni, eggs in the vagina to boost orgasms, for example, and steaming the vagina with mugwort to “balance” female hormones and to cleanse the uterus.
Social media contains a cacophony of medical misinformation, some of it dangerous. Some of the scarier videos describe DIY mole removal, ingrown toenail removal, or using nail files to sharpen teeth.
Today’s health influencers speak directly to the camera, “breaking the fourth wall,” a technique Somers used that can create a stronger bond between speaker and viewer, said Jessica Gall Myrick, a professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University.
“That’s probably why Somers was so influential,” Myrick said. “She talked directly to people through mass media. She was using mass media then the way people use social media today.”
• Prevalence of Health Misinformation on Social Media: Systematic Review (Journal of Medical Internet Research, 1-20-21) This study revealed that "the prevalence of health misinformation was the highest on Twitter and on issues related to smoking products and drugs." But "misinformation on major public health issues, such as vaccines and diseases, was also high. "Throughout our review, we found different types of misinformation claims depending on the topic.
"Concerning vaccines, misinformation was often framed with a scientific appearance against scientific evidence. Drug-related misinformation promoted the consumption and abuse of these substances. However, these statements lacked scientific evidence to support them. As with vaccines, false accounts that influenced the online conversation did so with a scientific appearance in favor of e-cigarettes. In this sense, most accounts tended to promote the use and abuse of these items. With beauty as the final goal, misinformation about eating disorders promoted changes in the eating habits of social media users. Furthermore, we found that social media facilitated the development of pro–eating disorder online communities. In general, the results indicated that this type of content promoted unhealthy practices while normalizing eating disorders.
In contrast, epidemic/pandemic-related misinformation was not directly malicious. Misinformation on this topic involved rumors, misunderstandings, and doubts arising from a lack of scientific knowledge. The statements were within the framework of the health emergency arising from the pandemic. In line with these findings, we noted findings related to noncommunicable diseases. Messages that focused on this topic promoted cures for chronic diseases or for conditions with no cure through fallacies or urban legends.
"Overall, health misinformation was most prevalent in studies related to smoking products, such as hookah and water pipes, e-cigarettes, and drugs, such as opioids and marijuana. Health misinformation about vaccines was also very common. However, studies reported different levels of health misinformation depending on the type of vaccine studied, with the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine being the most affected. Health misinformation related to diets or pro–eating disorder arguments were moderate in comparison to the aforementioned topics. Studies focused on diseases (ie, noncommunicable diseases and pandemics) also reported moderate misinformation rates, especially in the case of cancer. Finally, the lowest levels of health misinformation were observed in studies evaluating the presence of health misinformation regarding medical treatments. Although first-aid information on burns or information on dental implants was limited in quantity and quality, the prevalence of misinformation for these topics was low. Surgical treatment misinformation was the least prevalent. This was due to the fact that the content related to surgical treatments mainly came from official accounts, which made the online information complete and reliable.
• TikTok Health Trends That Are Riskier Than You Realized (Christine Byrne, Health Digest, 1-27-23)
TikTok has also fast become home to some very dangerous health trends. First, there are "challenges" that encourage users to do unequivocally harmful things, like overdosing on antihistamines. Then, there are the pseudo-wellness tips and challenges that cover everything from DIY mole removal to restrictive diet plans that are anything but healthy. The worst part? Thirteen- to 24-year-olds make up 69 percent of TikTok's user base, with 13-17-year-olds accounting for nearly a third of total users (via HootSuite).
Millions of "young and impressionable minds are seeing these dangerous health trends every day, and may not understand just how unhealthy they are. Plus, studies show that once misinformation has been spread, it's extremely difficult to debunk. And while TikTok does have community guidelines that forbid the spread of harmful misinformation, harmful misinformation of all sorts still persists. Sadly, many videos promoting unhealthy behavior continue to run rampant on TikTok."
Where to find reliable medical information
• Where journalists get their medical news and information(Pat McNees, Writers and Editors website)
• How To Find Reliable Health Information Online(National Institute on Aging)
• MedLine Plus(National Library of Medicine, Part of NIH)See Evaluating Health Information, a tutorial from NLM.
• Health.gov(Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services)
• Finding Practical Medical Information Online for People with Rare Conditions