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wellbeing: THE DANGERS OF MEDICAL ADVICE ON SOCIAL MEDIA

Dr Kieran Kennedy

IT IS NO SURPRISE THAT IN THE AGE OF 2020 WE’RE LOOKING AT OUR PHONES AND FEEDS MORE WHEN IT COMES TO ADVICE ON HEALTH AND WELLBEING.
The world’s changed leaps and bounds since this time last year {as if you needed reminding right} and information is flying thick and fast. Info, advice and evidence being a touch or swipe away is a good thing – but it comes with its own double edge.
Dr Kieran gives his advice on how to play it safe online…


From checking in with ‘Dr Google’ to see just how serious our headache could be to getting on board with one of Instagram’s latest viral wellness trends, social media and the online world seems to have suddenly acquired a medical degree of its own. The catch? It actually hasn’t donned that capped and gotten that degree at all, and therein lies that potential #fakenews danger.

So what are some need to knows when it comes to keeping perceptive and playing it safe online when it comes to that health info scroll?

Beware the easy fix

It’s something us doctors see across social media constantly – the quick fixes, the miraculous products, the “I didn’t believe it at first either” cures – all created to bring in unsuspecting followers (and buyers) drawn toward the bright lights of the next big thing. From diet teas, celery juice and alkaline water (just to name a few), when we’re on social media we can quickly find ourselves overwhelmed with diet swaps, products and practices that sound too good to be true. While I hate to be that doctor, the reality is that’s because they often are. Health is often all about the basics, but it’s still incredibly complex. Products and practices that promise miraculous outcomes or seemingly disconnected results in many areas sadly usually lack any medical evidence. Beware things that promise big results in multiple areas {skin, hair, mental health, gut health, energy…} and products that don’t have clear medical information or evidence attached.

Do your research

It can be hard to tell how legit products are from an Instagram or Facebook post – I hear you. With the glossy photos and long captions outlining amazing benefits, even us doctors can find it hard to separate the scientifically backed from the influence-y rubbish. Research shows we’re more likely to believe in the legitimacy of products and health claims when they’re attached to high-status individuals, those with a high following, attractive pictures and even certain colours (like green or blue). Coined the ‘Halo Effect’, it’s important for us to know that our brain can be tricked into believing and buying by the things we see and hear around us when health claims are put out there.

A few red flags here include products that come with a price or promotion, and influencers claiming spouting out knowledge about scientific or medical topics without the credentials to back them up. Look for references, and “care before you share” – take a step about and think about what’s being pushed or claimed. Getting information from multiple sources is important, so if you see something on instagram, for example, make it a habit to do your own google search and (of course) note it down to ask your doctor at the next appointment before you reach for the credit card.

The best places to get your information

This one is vital. It’s always best to stick to websites and information affiliated with medical organisations, universities or specific health-related agencies geared toward providing up to date and medically backed material. Not only does this mean we’re far more likely to get the actual evidence and right info, but it can strip away the confusion and cyclone of different messages/opinions that we’re often drowning in on socials.

If you are following health professionals online (which is a great way to share medical knowledge), familiarize yourself with the areas they specialise in and listen to the content that they share in these fields. If you’re unsure about anything you have seen on your feed, it’s always best to check in with your doctor to get their professional medical opinion too. Modern doctors are well aware of just how much health info {and quackery} gets thrown around online, so never feel embarrassed or shy about raising something you’ve seen or heard with your doc to get a professional opinion.

In its own way, it’s a beautiful thing that the modern world has us constantly connected and learning more about our health and better our wellbeing. It’s also key however to stay curious about where that information is coming from, and (more still) who’s saying it. Be conscious of who you are following and what they are promoting but also embrace the knowledge that you have in the palm of your hand. Take the driver’s seat when it comes to social media and health – a healthy dose of scepticism, double-checking claims and keeping your doctor in the loop before you double click or buy means you’re more likely have an ally in your hand, not an enemy.

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