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Preventing the Spread of Health Misinformation in Your Community

‘If you’re not sure, don’t share,’ U.S. surgeon general says

July 19, 2021

Online misinformation poses “an urgent and insidious threat to the nation’s health” and could undermine the country’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. surgeon general warned in a recent health advisory.

“Simply put, health misinformation has cost us lives,” said Dr. Vivek Murthy, surgeon general of the U.S.Four steps to prevent health misinformation in your community

Last week, Dr. Murthy and other public health officials discussed the ways to combat health misinformation for health care organizations, community leaders, and the general public. In an advisory posted last week, Dr. Murthy said limiting the spread of health misinformation is a “moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.”

The advisory notes that COVID-19 has led to the unprecedented spread of information, also known as the “infodemic.” As social media platforms reward engagement over accuracy, “emotionally charged” misinformation spreads more easily than “emotionally neutral” content, the advisory notes.

The advisory comes as Pennsylvania and other states are working to vaccinate the remaining eligible residents who have not received the COVID-19 vaccine. It also provides steps for health care organizations to combat misinformation by:

  • Proactively engaging with patients and the public:  Take the time to understand each patient’s knowledge, beliefs, and values. Focus on less technical language and find opportunities to correct misinformation in personalized ways 
  • Use technology and media to share accurate health information:  Hospitals have a range of clinical experts who can serve as reliable sources for journalists and on social media
  • Develop partnerships:  Working in tandem with local partners, hospitals can develop a singular public health message to provide accurate information from a single source

“I am urging all Americans to help slow the spread of health misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” Dr. Murthy said in the advisory. “Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts.”

The report notes the ways the general public can help limit the spread of health misinformation by:

  • Checking the source for information:  If you’re not sure, don’t share
  • Engaging with friends and family:  Listen with empathy and establish common ground. Ask questions and provide alternative explanations and sources of information. Initial conversations may only be a starting point
  • Finding trusted sources:  Invite local health professionals to schools or to faith congregations to talk about COVID-19 vaccine facts

Pennsylvania’s hospitals are helping to address the spread of misinformation, serving as trusted voices and speaking directly to their communities about COVID-19. HAP and Pennsylvania’s hospitals are dedicated to serving in this important role during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

HAP continues to encourage people with questions or concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine to reach out to their health care provider. The COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and widely available for free in your community.

More information about the COVID-19 vaccines is available online.