SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Nov. 11, 2021 (Gephardt Daily) — Dr. Skyler Johnson, one of Utah’s top physicians, is not only renowned for his work as a radiation oncologist at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute, he’s also an internationally recognized expert on medical misinformation.
It’s a subject deeply personal to Johnson, whose wife was diagnosed with cancer when he was attending medical school. While she has “responded fantastically well to treatment,” Johnson said, they were both struck, in those early days of her diagnosis, by just how pervasive, confusing and dangerous medical misinformation could be, even before social media existed.
In an interview on the Bill Gephardt Podcast, Johnson said that experience charted his path in medicine, ultimately leading him to design a 2017 research study at the Yale School of Medicine and Yale Cancer Center on the “Use of Alternative Medicine for Cancer and Its Impact on Survival.”
The study’s findings proved predictably grim for those who opted for the unproven therapies. The data indicated those patients were five times more likely to die sooner than those following traditional treatments, such as radiation, immunotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery.
A second study led by Johnson, “Cancer Misinformation and Harmful Information on Facebook and Other Social Media: A Brief Report,” was conducted at Huntsman, and published in July 2021. Researchers looked at hundreds of reports circulated online and found “one third of the most popular cancer treatment articles on social media contain misinformation. Further, the vast majority of that misinformation has the potential to harm cancer patients by supporting approaches that could negatively impact the quality of their treatment and chances for survival,” the report said.
According to Johnson, patients who are diagnosed are often frightened and vulnerable, looking for any options that might preserve their health. While some patients actively search for alternative treatments of their own volition, others are prompted to use them after hearing about them from well-meaning friends or family members.
“The upsetting part of this is that people feel like they don’t know who to trust,” Johnson said. “This is a real challenge for people, especially in terms of a crisis, like we’re in now during the COVID-19 pandemic. People want certainty, 100% certainty, and it’s one of the top psychological motivations that people have when they start to believe in theories that aren’t supported by science.”
Many of these belief systems are fueled by genuine fears, Johnson said, fears easily exploited by dishonest players who willfully undermine science while touting unproven alternatives — treatments that often come with a price tag for a product or a subscription service.
As Johnson’s studies began to verify the extent to which medical misinformation was impacting breast cancer patients he was treating, he devised an easy-to-use guide for separating medical fact from fiction.
According to Johnson, most sources of medical misinformation, whether presented online or by word of mouth, share four common attributes that can be remembered by way of a mirthful acronym, one he believes spells out all a patient needs to know. Those telltale attributes of bogus medical information are:
Conspiracy theories or claims too good to be true
Requests for money, either for a treatment product or access to information
Anecdotes to support their claims as opposed to real data
Publishers’ websites are from questionable sources and contain .com in their web addresses versus .org or .edu
To hear more of Dr. Skyler Johnson’s insights into the phenomenon of medical misinformation and how to guard yourself against it, click on the podcast above.
The Huntsman Cancer Institute is a paid advertiser on Gephardt Daily.