Fake news in Healthcare-9929Close to two million Bulgarians look for health-related information online. According to data from the National Statistical Institute, 63% of all Bulgarians have access to the Internet and 45% of these use it to find information about medical specialists and other health-related matters.
These and other findings were presented by Bulgarian journalist Nadezhda Tsekulova during a public discussion on the topic of fake news in medicine and healthcare, which took place in Sofia on November 2, 2017. The event was aimed at facilitating the exchange of experience and good practices among professionals in this field in the context of the greater availability of health-related information and the higher demand for such information, which together increase the responsibility of the people whose job is to create such content.
Organized by the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria) and Sharkova and Partners Law Company, the forum kicked off with remarks by deputy healthcare minister Dr Miroslav Nenkov, who shared his personal experience as a subject of fake news stories. Nenkov stressed that sometimes trustworthy information that is not presented or understood clearly may lead to a fake news story. He gave as an example a case from the beginning of his term when he tried to explain his ideas about the development of transplantation.
“It looked as if I would start touring hospitals to switch off the life-supporting devices of the people in the reanimation unit,” Nenkov said.
The deputy healthcare minister also addressed another popular topic, namely doctors’ mistakes. He said that sometimes people talk about such mistakes based on incomplete information or inaccurate interpretation. As he explained, sometimes the bad attitude of a doctor towards a patient is also categorized as “a doctor’s mistake.”
Looking at the topic from a journalistic perspective, AEJ-Bulgaria chairwoman Irina Nedeva stressed that fake news in medicine is nothing new and indeed dates back to the times before the emergence of social media. In addition to its being an element of the pursuit of sensationalism, fake news sometimes arises as a result of difficult doctor-patient communication and the lack of trust among the various actors in this process.
Traditional medicine, like many other public institutions, has been suffering from a decreasing public trust in it, health-related communication expert Gergana Koleva said. This leads to the flourishing of all kinds of conspiracy theories, such as those about “the white aprons’ mafia”, the harmful effects of vaccinations, or the drug against cancer that the pharmaceutical industry has developed but keeps in secret so that it can sell more expensive life-supporting medicines.
Boryana Marinkova, who has considerable experience as a public relations officer for one of the big hospitals in Sofia, drew attention to the responsibility of communication experts. Why do we allow hospitals to appear on page 20 in Google searches on a health-related topic, she asked rhetorically, noting that suspicious webpages with dangerous self-healing recommendations do much better on search engines. In her view, one reason for the spread of low-quality health-related information is the lack of enough credible information that is also easily accessible.
Is fake news the only source of potential harm to patients? The answer to this question is “no”, according to Maria Sharkova, a lawyer specializing in medical law. True information can also cause harm when, for example, patients’ data are disclosed in violation of the existing regulations.
Sharkova insisted on the need to differentiate between information in the public interest and information that is interesting to the public. A TV anchor’s health condition, for example, is not a matter of public interest despite being potentially interesting to the public. The situation is different with respect to a government member who, for instance, ends up in hospital. Even in such cases, however, it is important that only the information that matters the most be disclosed, namely how long his/her treatment is expected to last and whether his/her disease is reversible to the extent these concern his/her ability to do his/her job, Sharkova said.
Bilyana Savova, a member of the audience suffering from multiple sclerosis, shared her positive experience with alternative medicine. She opposed the practice of putting all methods under the same heading.
“You should think about the criteria for fake news,” she said. “The fact that I share my experience with others does not mean this is fake news.”
In her opinion, hospitals usually do not provide enough information to allow for an informed choice. She further said that conventional medicine is also not immune to incorrect information and bad practices.
AEJ-Bulgaria chairwoman Irina Nedeva drew the discussion to a close by saying that the problem lies mostly in communication – between doctors and patients, as well as between health experts and journalists. The importance of communication makes such events very useful because trust can only come with the improvement of communication among the participants in the process.
The forum was organised as part of AEJ-Bulgaria’s project “Mediator 2: A Bridge Between Ethical Journalism and the Society”, supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. It was further supported by Bayer Bulgaria and Novartis.