January 19, 2019

Don't Listen to Doctor Google

“It started during yoga class. She felt a strange pull on her neck, a sensation completely foreign to her. Her friend suggested she rush to the emergency room. It turned out that she was having a heart attack.

She didn’t fit the stereotype of someone likely to have a heart attack. She exercised, did not smoke, watched her plate. But on reviewing her medical history, I found that her cholesterol level was sky high. She had been prescribed a cholesterol-lowering statin medication, but she never picked up the prescription because of the scary things she had read about statins on the internet. She was the victim of a malady fast gearing up to be a modern pandemic — fake medical news.

While misinformation has been the object of great attention in politics, medical misinformation might have an even greater body count. As is true with fake news in general, medical lies tend to spread further than truths on the internet — and they have very real repercussions.

Numerous studies have shown that the benefits of statins far outweigh the risks, especially for people at high risk of heart disease. But they have been targeted online by a disparate group that includes paranoid zealots, people selling alternative therapies and those who just want clicks. Innumerable web pages and social media posts exaggerate rare risks and drum up unfounded claims, from asserting that statins cause cancer to suggesting that low cholesterol is actually bad for health. Even stories simply weighing the risks versus benefits of statins, a 2016 study found, were associated with patients’ stopping the cholesterol-lowering drugs — which is associated with a spike in heart attacks.”

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