Why Twitter Is Bad For Your Health

The paradox of Health 2.0 is that along with unlimited access to medical information comes unlimited exposure to medical misinformation.

Social networks like Twitter and Facebook are replete with marketers in sheep’s clothing, pseudo-doctors (I hate to be a stickler, but a doctor should be a doctor and not just be a cool moniker like Queen is to Latifa), and friends who happen to be dumb.

When you combine these characters, finding truth is difficult in a sea of social media untruths.¬†In this way, Twitter is bad for your health. Using social media sites to help with your medical problem means you’re getting lots of medical misinformation.

A study published in the American Journal of Infection Control proved this point. The authors looked at tweets and retweets about using antibiotics to treat a cold. They discovered that inaccurate or misinformed tweets were rampant and exposed 850,000 or more people to bad advice or wrong information about antibiotics.

I decided to do my own quick study. I searched eczema on Twitter; from the first 100 tweets here’s what I found:

  • A whopping 84 were spam.
  • There were sneaky spammers like a real-looking person who tweeted “Grandson 2 yrs horrible¬†eczema tried all specialist not any better steroids no help?” and linked to a scary-bad-English site where you can buy drugs online without a prescription.
  • A real person who advised that eczema was caused by drinking coffee. (He must know something I don’t).
  • Three “natural doctors” (Queens?) with books and videos that promise to “CURE YOUR ECZEMA NOW!” (They obviously went to better medical schools than I, because I never learned the cure for eczema).
  • Patients giving medical advice to other patients. One link to a discussion went: “My 1 year old daughter has terrible keratosis on her arms and legs. Help?!” Discussion response: “Your daughter has keratosis pilaris. Use Eucerin Intensive Repair Lotion.” This is bad for several reasons. It’s inappropriate for anyone to give medical advice online, even a physician. I would never make such a diagnosis without seeing the child. I doubt keratosis pilaris is the correct diagnosis in a one-year-old. Lastly, Eucerin Lotion has alpha-hydroxy acid which is inappropriate to put on an infant (it might burn her skin).
  • Several links to a “Toothless Fish” that eats skin and will cure your eczema. Seriously.
  • An at-home LED light device that apparently we doctors don’t want you to know about. It treats your eczema AND acne AND wrinkles! Whew, I’ve been keeping that in for so long, it feels good to tell you. Now you know about the secret LED, and a burden has been lifted off my shoulders.
  • A twitterer with a potty mouth that I’m not gonna repeat here.

How do you know that the information you’re getting is accurate? Can you trust your friends? Social media and Health 2.0 are here to stay and have the potential to benefit patients and physicians. So how should you navigate to avoid bad advice?

  • Always question the source of the information. Both well meaning people and spammers can harm you — if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not true.
  • Always see your physician for diagnoses and medial advice. Use social media only to supplement your knowledge or to connect with other patients or health providers.
  • Always remember, you really don’t know who is posting information online — I could be a dog, after all, and you’d never know it.

Photo: Caricaturas (from flickr) and Peter Steiner, The New Yorker (from wikipedia).