Addressing the Public “Infodemic” Spurred by COVID-19
By Denise Basow, MD
Denise Basow, MD is CEO of the Clinical Effectiveness business unit of Wolters Kluwer, Health.
The novel coronavirus proliferated around the globe with lightning speed, spurring an explosion of new medical information over the last 18 months. Care teams on the front lines were desperate to get their hands on the latest guidelines to treat the influx of patients streaming through their emergency departments, but were also faced with misinformation that could potentially harm their patients.
Similarly, patients struggled to understand which information sources to trust so they could protect themselves and their loved ones. The WHO has identified this deluge of information, or “infodemic,” as a primary concern for global health.
According to the WHO, the definition of an infodemic is “too much information, including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak, which can cause confusion and risk-taking behaviors that can harm health; it can also lead to mistrust in health authorities, undermining the public health response.”
Consider that on January 31, 2020 there were 50 studies published on coronavirus within 20 days, which was remarkable progress. Today, there are more than 150,000 studies on coronavirus, with some estimates as high as 400,000 if we include preprint journals and other gray literature.
It is critical that someone make sense of all this information for it to be useful in treating patients, as there is a significant margin for error when considering the immense pressure to do so as quickly as possible to save lives.
While much of my career has focused on getting the latest evidence-based information into the hands of the clinician community to foster the best care everywhere, we can’t forget that patients are a critically important part of the healthcare team. They need the right information as well, and this information should align with the evidence their care teams are using to make treatment decisions.
Fortunately, there is a clear path for combatting misinformation that can lead to an infodemic, and it is critical that the healthcare community understands and embraces it now to mitigate future occurrences:
- Listen to communities – of clinicians and patients – for the specific questions and concerns that they have.
- Get the facts into the hands of those communities so they can accurately evaluate risk, particularly around new vaccines in the case of COVID-19.
- Foster broad understanding of the internet’s ability to produce good and bad information to build resilience to misinformation.
- Provide tools that empower communities to act, such as education on how to distinguish fact from fiction and everything in between.
Across the world, everyone from government and public health officials to healthcare providers, community leaders, and individual patients need help determining when it’s appropriate to act (or not act) based on the scientific evidence. Everyone should have access to evidence-based information that informs their decisions, and technology should help facilitate, not hinder, that access. We can and we must learn from the COVID-19 infodemic to improve future public health response.