The pandemic wasn’t a freak occurrence — how can we better prepare for the next one?
January 9, 2023
By Jan Herzhoff, PhD
With TikTok being a leading source of news, we need to work together to combat misinformation and disseminate accessible evidence-based information to the public
As a society, we are more connected than ever before. Through technology, we are harnessing the ability to turn connections into data, empowering patients and healthcare professionals with information at their fingertips. This includes personal health data gathered through monitoring devices; electronic medical records; and an array of information disseminated online and through social media.
Information consumption trends are changing. In fact, TikTok was the UK’s fastest-growing source of news, according to a 2022 Ofcom news consumption survey(opens in new tab/window). However, we must proceed with caution when accessing health information on social media platforms, especially during healthcare crises when the explosion of information can lead to false or misleading clinical guidance being circulated.
It was this context that drew my attention to the findings from a recently published World Health Organization report(opens in new tab/window). The systematic review analyzed 31 published studies focusing on fake news, misinformation, disinformation and infodemics related to health. The report highlighted that social media has been propagating poor-quality health-related information during pandemics at an increasing rate, and consequently, online misinformation has been shown to cause mental, social, political, and economic distress.
The report calls out that “experts and health professionals are among those best placed to refute misinformation and direct users to information sources that are evidence-based.”
It is clear that health information providers have a critical role to play, and that governments, health authorities, researchers and clinicians must focus on promoting and disseminating trustworthy health information — not only to counteract the false or misleading information already distributed but also to build trust with the public.
Challenges and opportunities
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, basic scientific terms such as specificity, sensitivity and pre-test probabilities have made their way into everyday conversations. With the widespread use of social media providing a constant stream of information, new audiences are both consuming and commenting on research.
False or misleading information spreads uncontrollably during crises, as seen in the COVID-19 pandemic. While social media can be beneficial when used to disseminate information quickly, if used incorrectly it has the potential to amplify harmful messages as the quality of information is often unregulated. The WHO review reports that social media has previously played a role in propagating inaccurate health information during pandemics and health emergencies at an alarming rate.
To address this issue, all stakeholders involved in healthcare delivery have a role to play in combating misinformation circulating not just on social media but across all channels. Health information providers have the opportunity to support clinicians in their pursuit to guide the public to evidence-based sources that provide more current, credible data. It is of utmost importance to provide healthcare professionals (HCPs) with evidence-based content quickly and effectively to also prevent inaccurate clinical information from filling the void.
Sorting fact from fiction: Elsevier Health as a strategic knowledge partner
The pandemic also demonstrated that the sharing of international research data can help expedite best practice management of COVID-19 symptoms and vaccine development. The healthcare landscape is continuing to evolve, with clinical guidance advancing at a rapid pace. As an organization, Elsevier Health supports clinicians by providing accurate evidence-based information. We understand that we all have an important role to play in both raising awareness of misinformation and amplifying the need for, and importance of, disseminating evidence-based information.
Disseminating trusted, evidence-based information in an accessible and understandable format through the proper channels is critical to reaching a wide range of the population quickly.
This need prompted us to create Elsevier’s Healthcare Hub(opens in new tab/window), which serves as a trusted information center of evidence-based knowledge, research and resources for the most pressing medical and healthcare issues. The COVID-19 Healthcare Hub(opens in new tab/window) gives healthcare professionals free access to clinical tools along with the latest expert insights and research resources. This has allowed them to make faster, more informed decisions when healthcare information is rapidly evolving.
Recent additions include the Monkeypox Healthcare Hub(opens in new tab/window), designed to assist HCPs in dealing with the recent outbreak and help curb the spread of misinformation, and the Ukrainian Patient Education Hub,(opens in new tab/window) providing those in Ukraine access to patient-focused materials.
Additionally, throughout the pandemic, Elsevier’s Osmosis(opens in new tab/window), a leading health education platform, partnered with YouTube to bring best-in-class health content in a short, easy-to-understand, video format to billions of people worldwide. The Clinician’s Series(opens in new tab/window) was developed to tackle some of the most pressing current health topics, including COVID-19, post-COVID effects and vaccinations. In addition, Osmosis’s platform provided students with the tools and resources to stay safe and informed. Like all of our content, the learning materials were routinely reviewed to reflect the latest research and official guidelines, giving students and educators easy access to essential evidence-based information they could rely on.
In 2020, during the COVID-19 global outbreak, Elsevier Health wanted to understand how healthcare systems globally have pivoted digitally to transform their operations, care, and service models due to the pandemic. This led to the development of the Future of Healthcare series. We working with leading healthcare practitioners from Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America to understand the challenges and opportunities arising from COVID-19 that would impact our healthcare system of tomorrow, and the role of digital technology in the new reality moving forward.
Building on the Future of Healthcare series, we wanted to discuss and reflect on how COVID-19 could improve research culture for the better. We did this through the Future of Research webinar series(opens in new tab/window), which emphasized the importance of standardizing and harmonizing data collection, establishing research networks to ensure high-quality research, and adjusting publication methods to facilitate the rapid dissemination of accurate research.
It was also clear that the vast volume of healthcare information and the explosion of data can be particularly overwhelming for students entering this profession. Elsevier Health has responded to this need by creating free student engagement apps for medical and nursing students in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. These apps guide students through the first weeks of their education and beyond, giving them access to content from world-leading authors. We were pleased to learn that these apps have been welcomed by students, with 275,000 installs across the 16 apps in 2022.
Going forward, we will continue to help support areas of real need where there are information voids. This includes plans to launch an ambitious initiative aimed at educating millions of current and future healthcare professionals, caregivers, researchers, patients, family members, and the public on rare diseases.
Information accessible to all
Emerging data suggest that pandemics are an inevitable reality in the world we live in today. A 2021 study in PNAS(opens in new tab/window) suggests that such extreme epidemics are not as rare as we think and are likely to occur with more frequency in the coming decades. The authors conclude that most people will likely experience a healthcare crisis like COVID-19 at least once in their lifetime.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the crucial importance of research into infectious diseases —particularly how a pandemic progresses, vital diagnostic tools, and potential treatments or vaccines. However, if we are to shape the future of the healthcare information environment, we must prioritize preventing and addressing health misinformation online. Healthcare providers play an important role in easing public insecurities and ensuring that healthcare professionals are appropriately responding to the public’s needs in an efficient and effective manner.
It is also imperative that healthcare solutions providers continue to listen to the evolving challenges that clinicians will face in the future. We must continue to collaborate to develop solutions that will assist them in combating infodemics and support them by providing high-quality, trusted,evidence-based care, allowing clinicians to deliver the right care at the right time during a patient's healthcare journey.