A Heavy Dose of Ranting: The Digital Age of Misinformation

A simple google search can yield answers to almost any question imaginable. However, how reliable are the varied answers? Although inaccuracies about your favourite TV show trivia questions might not create any disastrous consequences, what happens for individuals that look up information regarding their health? Studies conducted at the University of Kansas by Assistant Professor Susan Harvey have highlighted that adults and adolescents alike frequently don’t verify their sources or double check information [1]. Given the success of “fake news” at influencing the electorate, it seems clear that many individuals seem to inherently trust anything that is published on the internet. It’s as if the fact that it’s freely available is evidence enough of its trustworthiness.

In 2015, a preliminary study by The BMJ (originally called the British Medical Journal) evaluated the efficacy of WebMD, a symptom checker available online [2]. In only roughly a THIRD of the cases did WebMD actually list the correct diagnosis as the first option amongst a list of diagnoses. Since that study, WebMD has improved its algorithm to increase accuracy [3]. This boosted the accuracy rate to about 70%. However, it’s been heavily noted that these symptom checkers tend to quickly recommend trips to the ER unnecessarily increasing the burden on healthcare. With the growth of telemedicine, i.e. the ability for caregivers to remotely interact with patients, are symptom checkers even needed [4]?

What I question is: why didn’t WebMD evaluate the efficacy of their own site before rolling it out? This seems as if it should be a fairly standard procedure even for non-specialists. Why is the onerous on independent researchers to evaluate the accuracy of these websites? And at what point do websites suggesting medical advice have to adhere to some type of unified standard? How is this health data ultimately used by WebMD? Mediktor, a Barcelona-based company, that has developed its own symptom checker has stated that health data is sold to advertisers. It appears that no data is too sacred to sell.

Symptom checkers continue to remain at the forefront. Mediktor is now expanding into the US market with the claim that this will help to address US health care costs by avoiding unnecessary hospital visits [5]. Their data shows that 4.5 emergency room visits were avoided when Mediktor was used in Barcelona, a significantly different healthcare market. Much of the US healthcare costs are related to the complexities of their insurance industry and their relationship with hospital administrators. Moreover, many Americans use the emergency room because they wait until their medical issues become so severe they have to be addressed. Likely due to the sky high costs of hospital procedures and co-pays for those even with insurance plans [6].

The complexity to the debate of internet regulation largely deals with free speech considerations. Is online information required to be accurate? Who decides the quality of accuracy and who administers these evaluations? Internet accessibility is global, yet regulations are typically limited to the national level. Creating an added layer of bureaucratic intricacy.  Worst case scenario, the book 1984 becomes a reality, and the government seizes the opportunity to censor any content it deems disagreeable. However, the growing reality is that many individuals are unwilling or incapable of discerning a quality source of information from fake news. When comparing the speed of technological innovation v. the speed of legislators to write and eventually pass bills, it will be incredibly difficult for laws to keep up with the technology of today. Nonetheless, these are pressing issues that need to be addressed and political innovations are likely needed to keep pace.

One thing is for sure: don’t take anything you find on the internet as a guarantee.

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