As health writers, we have a huge responsibility to understand the risks of misinformation. We should provide our readers with socially responsible, evidence-based and quality information.
We are accountable for the content we create.
Misleading health content is harmful to public health, confuses people, spreads misinformation and has potential legal issues.
So, what can you do if you spot misinformation online – and how can you ensure you’re not the one spreading it in the first place?
What is misinformation?
Misinformation is a term used to describe false, inaccurate, misleading or deceptive health claims.
A health claim is a broad statement about how something – an action, food, product or service – can affect health.
Health claims must be substantiated with quality scientific evidence.
If you don’t have evidence to support your claims, how can you be sure your claims are true and won’t be harmful to public health?
Around the world, bodies like the US FDA regulate health claims on food products and medicines.
Strictly speaking, only health claims supported by scientific evidence are allowed on food labels. But, as the internet isn’t regulated, anyone with an internet connection can publish health content and make unsubstantiated health claims.
Examples of false health claims include:
- Coffee enemas cure cancer
- A two-week diet that cures anxiety for good
- Herbal teas soothe aches and pains.
All those claims are untrue, yet some are riskier than others. Usually, false claims sound more enticing to consumers than real ones because they’re packed full of power words that do a great job of selling and persuading.
How to understand misinformation
Misinformation comes in many shapes and forms, but generally, it’s information that:
- Can’t be substantiated
- Has no evidence backing it up
- Oversimplifies a treatment, making it sound far too quick and easy
- Uses an abundance of over-enthusiastic words, like ‘cure’
You can check out Dr Bill Sukala’s bullsh*t detector for more tips on how to spot and understand misinformation.
Why do people write misleading health content?
There are many reasons why people write misleading health information:
- Putting marketing messages above truth – misleading messages tend to sound better which often means they sell better
- Lack of fundamental communication skills – writers may be unaware that these rules and regulations exist
- Unaware of basic health and science principles – with no prior health knowledge, some writers simply don’t understand how to communicate about health
- Repeating information learned from poor-quality sources – all it takes is one viral article and misinformation spreads rapidly online.
In any industry, there are people who want to make money by selling as many products as possible; the health and wellness industry is no exception.
And while I believe that most people in the health and wellness industry – influencers, authors, chefs, doctors, health writers – have good intentions, others push the boundaries.
What can you do if you spot misinformation online?
While it’s great to see Instagram cracking down on detox content and Google’s updates deprioritising poorly written health websites, we still have a long way to go in the war on misinformation.
If you see a misleading health claim online, here’s what you can do:
1. Contact the original poster privately and explain why the content is misleading
A polite, private note pointing out the inaccuracies is a useful first step. The poster may not be aware of the golden rules of health writing.
2. Leave a public comment and explain why the content is misleading
If you’ve tried to privately contact the poster and haven’t gotten anywhere, a public comment or review might spur them into action.
A public comment can also alert other readers to the misinformation.
Remember to always comment respectfully. There’s a fine line between criticism and bullying these days. If you’re not considered in your response, your post could easily get banned.
A caveat: debunking doesn’t always work. But it’s worth a shot.
3. Rewrite the claim, and send it to the author
If you’re feeling brave, you could edit the claim and show the author a compliant version. Usually, the complaint version sounds decidedly less sexy than the original – but it’s our job to make our content sound interesting and useful.
4. Report the content for false advertising
If the poster is ignoring you or refuses to change their content, it could be time to go to the authorities.
Most countries have regulatory bodies that monitor misinformation and health claims.
As there’s nobody policing the internet, the system relies on people like you to report the content.
If the claims are found to be false by a tribunal, penalties can range from a retraction and public apologies to fines.
How to write compliant health claims
While different countries have different rules and regulations, the universal ‘rule’ for health writing is that health writers should not intentionally make false or misleading claims.
This concept is something that takes a while for people to get their head around because it’s a complex issue. When I started out, I wasn’t entirely aware of the scope of this issue and I wasn’t getting it right. That’s one of the reasons why I created my medical writing courses to help others understand these subjects. Even experienced writers get this wrong.
As health writers, it’s a key part of our job to make health claims. So, we need to know where our information comes from. Our claims should be evidence-based, and the evidence should be of good quality.
If there is no evidence – research, statistics – supporting your claim, then your claim is potentially misleading. You need to ask yourself where the claim came from and how you can verify it is true.
Here’s what the US FDA calls a “qualified health claim”:
- A claim authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that must be supported by credible scientific evidence regarding a relationship between a substance (specific food or food component) and a disease or health-related condition. Both of these elements — a substance and a disease — must be present in a health claim, An example of an authorized health claim is: “Calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
As every country has different rules and regulations, it’s your responsibility to find your local guidelines and make sure you understand what they say. To start, look for:
- Health professional marketing guidelines – for what you can write about health professional services
- Guidelines for marketing drugs, medicines and foods – for what you can write about medicines, supplements and health foods
- Consumer marketing guidelines – for what you can write about products and services generally.
This compliance template for general claims can also help you get started.
I like to believe that we all want the same thing. We want people to be healthy and happy, to live long, to make socially responsible choices and to be kind to one another. Accurate communication is a key aspect of achieving this.
Understanding health claims can seem a little scary for new health writers, but once you get into the habit of questioning everything it’s not that confusing – it becomes a mindset.