Fluoride Action Network

Viewpoint: Counteracting Health Misinformation. A Role for Medical Journals?

Source: JAMA Network 321(19):1863-1864. | April 22nd, 2019 | By Paul W. Armstrong, MD and C. David Naylor, MD, DPhil.
Location: Canada
Industry type: Misinformation

The growing toll of popular fallacies about health and illness is evident given outbreaks of measles and other preventable communicable diseases in many nations. This “medical misinformation” phenomenon has been described as “a health-related claim of fact that is currently false due to a lack of scientific evidence,”1 [links to this article] but that may be a generous interpretation. Complementary and alternative medical approaches, without firm evidentiary bases, have coexisted uncomfortably with mainstream scientific medicine for decades, and they persist.2 [links to this article] By contrast, contemporary misinformation of greatest concern is supplanting well-proven interventions and ideas with unproven ones that are clearly false and, in some cases, harmful.


‘… contemporary misinformation of greatest concern is supplanting well-proven interventions and ideas with unproven ones that are clearly false and, in some cases, harmful.”

“.. This new online world facilitates direct-to-consumer marketing by phony experts, celebrities with armies of Twitter followers, and legions of independent digital scammers, including some physicians. The result has been torrents of misinformation on topics as varied as the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations, the Zika virus outbreak, water fluoridation, genetically modified foods, and treatments for common diseases.”

“… The Table outlines 4 broad strategies sometimes recommended to help address medical misinformation …

Table. Potential Strategies for Counteracting Medical Misinformation




Containment of dissemination Physicians and medical journals Identify purveyors of clear-cut misinformation
Regulators, social media executives Limit their capacity for dissemination
Editors in traditional and new media Avoid legitimizing falsehoods about health and illness in the name of “balance”
General immunity through science literacy Primary and secondary schools/educators Ensure that high school graduates understand how and why the scientific method works and possess some critical-thinking tools
Health-specific inoculation and education Health professionals, faculties, and organizations; public health agencies; communications experts; medical journals Promote general understanding of medical science and communicate about common misconceptions using websites, digital media, town halls, and conventional print and broadcast media. Prepare the next generation of health professionals to navigate a world of “truthiness” and pseudoscience
Debunking myths and discrediting purveyors Journalists and journals/media outlets; health professionals and researchers; medical journals Direct rebuttals of medical misinformation using a variety of media platforms. Undertaking critical reviews of the provenance of misinformation, unveiling purveyors’ credentials and conflicts of interest



The rising tide of medical misinformation is already having adverse effects on global health. It requires a robust and coordinated response from health professionals, organizations, institutions, and mainstream media. Medical journals now have an opportunity to galvanize and support this important effort.


Paul W. Armstrong, MD. Canadian VIGOUR Centre, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; and Division of Cardiology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

C. David Naylor, MD, DPhil. Department of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

*Article online at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2731897

One of four Comments to this article:

Promote Science-Based Medicine

Steven Zeitzew, M.D. | West L.A. Veterans Administration Healthcare Center

If the public should be guided by science, so should the top medical schools, all of whom now teach, promote, and profit by selling unscientific medical treatment in the guise of integrative medicine. So should the Veterans Administration, Medicare, and Medicaid, who all pay for unscientific medical treatment. Physicians ought to make recommendations for medical treatment based upon the best available science. Government regulations allow some drugs, such as herbal supplements and homeopathics, to be sold without first requiring the same evidence of safety and efficacy we require for pharmaceuticals. We should have the same standards of safe manufacture, honest labeling, and sufficient scientific evidence of safety and efficacy for all bottles of pills. Exempting alternative medicine from regulation deceives patients because the bottles of pills are sold side-by-side with medications with evidence for efficacy, safety, and clean preparation.