The Information Problem in Health and Healthcare Part 3: The Consumer Problem

The Information Problem in Health and Healthcare Part 3: The Consumer Problem

In the first installment of this series, we introduced the various problems involved in presenting and consuming health information and discussed the problem of bias in scientific research and reporting. In the second installment, we looked at how journalism and the media industry contribute to these issues. Today we delve into our own responsibility and look into the issues consumers bring to the table.

Bias and the echo chamber

As individuals, we color the world with our perceptions of things. Whatever we see, hear and read enters our consciousness through a unique filter. And everyone has their biases and blind spots.

As interconnected as the web is, our consumption habits create echo chambers. We visit the same websites over and over. Our friends, followers and connections on social media tend to be like us, i.e., they share similar views. We read things we already agree with and discard those we don’t.

In doing so, we end up creating our own information bubble that rarely takes us out of our comfort zone and challenges our thinking. To bring it back to healthcare, imagine a loved one has cancer. Your views on health are “mainstream,” meaning you place a high value on modern medicine, pharmaceuticals and hope that the cancer research industry will come up with a solution to your loved one’s health issue.

In your research on cancer treatments, your Google searches, Facebook feed, suggested websites, etc. tend to reflect your views (we’ll get deeper into how online algorithms affect our consumption of health information in the next article). You will read articles on new drug trials and your hopes will color the way you interpret them. You will watch videos about people who survived chemo and radiation and take encouragement from them. Your social networks will likely include mainstream medical cancer survivors, doctors, organizations, etc. You will continue to solidify your views through habit and repetition.

Then one day you stumble across an article about someone who beat cancer with detox, nutrition and alternative therapies. It seems so foreign and strange–maybe even silly or wrong! (This attitude goes both ways, of course.) But in this way, your perception stands in your way.

Time constraints and laziness

It is safe to say we are bombarded by information these days. There is no way any single person could actually consume even a miniscule fraction of it in any sort of meaningful way.

Consequently, we tend to scan headlines or watch the first 40 seconds of a video, then move on to the next item.

If you remember in Part 2 of this series, we brought up the Time Magazine article about McDonald’s french fries and baldness. It read:

“A Chemical in McDonald’s French Fries Could Help Cure Baldness, Study Says”

Given our information consumption habits, we would likely only read the headline and move on. And if all you do is read the headline, it’s very likely you’ll believe it, particularly as it comes from a supposedly reputable organization–Time Magazine.

The truth is, as mentioned in Part 2, the study found that this chemical that exists in trace amounts in McDonald’s french fries has regrown hair in some types of mice. That’s it. Time Magazine exaggerated it to get your interest, and because you’re too busy/distracted/lazy to really dive into the material, you take it as true. Classic spread of misinformation.

The bottom line

It is unreasonable to expect anyone to overcome the onslaught of information in the modern world to where they can have a birds-eye view of the truth on new developments in health.

However, you can take steps to mitigate the echo chamber effect, as well as some tips and tricks of the journalism trade that might come in handy.

First of all, a great rule of thumb when it comes to journalism: If the headline is a question, the answer is almost always a “no.” For example: “Can McDonald’s French Fries Cure Baldness?” The answer to that is no. If you take notice, you’ll find this rule applies most of the time.

As for your own biases, this is something that requires reflection and a commitment to openness. Another general rule of thumb: any extreme view tends to fall apart under scrutiny, including those regarding health. Take some time to consider how tightly you hold on to your views. Do you read an article and immediately consider it to be wrong? Or unequivocally correct? Either way, you might be biased.

If you want to break out of your echo chamber, try balancing your information consumption and consider with whom you are connected on social media. Tip: you can unfollow someone without unfriending them. That way, you don’t get their updates.

Consider your priorities. If health is important to you (I hope it is!), and you are particularly interested in cancer, prioritize cancer in terms of how much time you spend seeking out information about it. While you may be scanning political news headlines or the sports section, actually read the articles that are cancer-related rather than just taking the headlines into account.

Stay tuned for Part 4 when we look at how the actual technology has an impact on the information presented to us.