3. HPV vaccines are bad for you…and the medical establishment is covering up!
The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is one of the most effective weapons in the medical armamentarium against cervical cancer, and has already demonstrated unanticipated benefits in reducing anal and oral cancers. The perfect storm of “anti-vaxxers” and religious conservative forces, who fear that vaccinating a young woman against HPV will encourage sexual promiscuity, has impeded the effective implementation and widespread use of this life-saving strategy, aided and abetted by “fake news”—some of which is promulgated by politicians.9
The digital era has made the rapid propagation of “fake news” more efficient than ever. By offering up emotionally charged campaigns, based on powerful anecdotes that are repeated over and over again, fake news gets our attention. Logic and facts are, well, boring when pitted against sensational clickbait. Truth gets replaced with “truthiness”: something that seems or feels like it is true (thank you, Stephen Colbert), so we just go with it.
How can we and our patients protect ourselves from the clickbait?
- Encourage good habits. Direct your patients to reputable sources of information at the outset of a web search. Rather than reading the first item that comes up, assuming it is the most important one, it helps to bookmark reputable websites. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, of course, is an outstanding resource, as are the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health. Many academic medical centers have readily accessible web posts on a broad range of topics in women’s health. For specialty information, the North American Menopause Society, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the American Society for Gynecologic Oncology, and the Hormone Health Network provide excellent, fact-based information.
- Reiterate the principles of critical thinking. Educate your patients on how to tell if a source is reliable. Are the data referenced and peer reviewed? Are clinical studies described? If they are described, were the studies registered under clinicaltrials.gov? Are the authors in the bibliography of a scientific piece all the same, small group of authors? This suggests an internally concatenating alternative reality may be behind the thinking.
- Be proactive. I like to provide my patients with specific information sources on sensitive topics prone to disinformation campaigns. I anticipate that they will be consulting “Dr. Google” as soon as they leave my office. If you have an electronic medical record, you can create dot phrases for commonly asked questions and avoid rewriting this for every similar patient scenario. Having patient education materials available in your office waiting room can also be an effective way to direct your patients to reliable sources of information.
- Fight back. Highlight for your patients some of the more outrageous examples of viral information that were subsequently proven to be untrue (e.g., the Hillary Pizzagate Conspiracy), and alert them to be critical of stories that elicit a strong emotional response. Give them tools to sort out the real from the fake (snopes.com is an excellent website for this purpose).
Like it or not, the information highway of the Internet can be a “disinformation highway” that is not under our control, but it is here to stay. Alerting patients to the pitfalls inherent in information access in this era of plentiful information may make them better at sorting it out. And like it or not, that task has now become part of our daily work if we are to promote the health of our patients. I’m off to check my Facebook feed for the week, and I hope I won’t be accosted by too many trolls!
The author reports no potential conflicts of interest with regard to this article.
- Campbell JW. Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the myths, defining the legacies. 2001; Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 156–160. ISBN 0-275-96686-0.
- Ludolph R, Allam A, Schultz PJ. Manipulating Google’s knowledge graph box to counter biased information processing during an online search on vaccination: application of a technological debiasing strategy. J Med Internet Res. 2016;18: e137.
- Ketcham AS, Sindelar WF. Risk factors in breast cancer. Prog Clin Cancer. 1975;6:99-114.
- MacMahon B. Risk factors for endometrial cancer. Gynecologic Oncol. 1975; 2:122.
- Pinkerton JV, Santoro N. Compounded bioidentical hormone therapy: identifying use trends and knowledge gaps among US women. Menopause. 2015;22:926-936.
- Teoh D. The power of social media for HPV vaccination--not fake news! ASCO Educational Book, Volume 39, pages 75-78.