COMMENTARY: Combatting misinformation in women’s health

This month, social media will be awash in posts celebrating International Women’s Day (IWD). As a physician, I would like to reflect on how the same platforms that elevate women’s rights, gender equity and empowerment can create risks to women’s health. 

A recent Abacus report commissioned by the CMA showed that a majority of Canadians – male and female – now seek news and information online over TV or radio. Female respondents were more likely than men to use social media and significantly more likely to go online for information on specific health conditions and symptoms (82%) or treatment options (75%). 

Given the complexity of women’s health issues, which can range from endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), menopause and more, the quest for information is real. Women are more likely to experience dismissal or minimization of their symptoms, perpetuating stigma and shame. And more than 6.5 million Canadians struggle with any access to a regular family doctor, particularly in rural, remote and equity-seeking communities.

Algorithms that favour clicks and likes to the detriment of evidence-based facts make it increasingly difficult to discern health facts from fiction. A 2023 study from Ohio State University reviewed the 500 most popular TikTok posts related to gynecological cancer, with a combined 466 million views. They found an overall poor quality of content and identified at least 73% of the content as inaccurate. 

As a family doctor, I have seen first-hand the negative outcomes on pregnant patients and newborns from missed or incomplete vaccines. In women’s health, misinformation about the vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV) – one of only two vaccines that we have to fight cancer – increases vaccine hesitancy and leaves more women at risk for preventable, and sometimes fatal, diseases.

Likewise, false claims that mammograms are unnecessary or harmful may deter women from undergoing regular screenings, potentially leading to delayed diagnosis and poorer outcomes.

Women surveyed for the CMA Health and Media Tracking Report identified the effects from health misinformation: 

  • 45% said it led to distress or anxiety
  • 38% delayed seeking care 
  • 34% cited difficulty discussing health care with providers
  • 31% avoided effective treatments because of misinformation

No wonder that 67% of female respondents described misinformation in Canada as a “major” or “moderate” problem, compared to 57% of men. 

So, how do we begin to address the challenge? As doctors, we have a critical role to play in combating this infodemic. Physicians remain a trusted source of truth — the number one source for health information, according to our survey. As a profession, there is value in our continued efforts to take the time necessary to provide patients with accurate information, foster open dialogue and address patients’ individual concerns with empathy and understanding. 

However, I would argue that we are just one part of a bigger effort needed to fight the harmful effects of misinformation on women’s health. We need everyone to lean in.

Media literacy, particularly education on critical thinking and source checking, can empower women to make informed decisions about their health. Government and regulatory bodies, as well as digital platforms, also have a responsibility to regulate online content, promote accurate information and hold purveyors of false information accountable.

The IWD campaign this year calls for us to #InspireInclusion and forge a better world together. As we celebrate today, I invite you to imagine a digital landscape that truly embodies that vision — one that empowers everyone to make decisions about their health with confidence and clarity to live their best life. 

And to all the women providing health care, I see you today and thank you.  

Dr. Kathleen Ross is a family physician in Coquitlam and New Westminster, BC, and the president of the Canadian Medical Association.

link

Back To Top