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Can We Trust Medical Information from Mainstream Media?

I recently gasped in shock as I read an editorial printed in a major newspaper outlet that contained gross inaccuracies about food allergy management. Two days later, I nearly did a spit take as I watched a television segment on a popular morning news/entertainment show that also relayed grossly inaccurate information about food allergies. As an allergist, I quickly identified how and why the information was incorrect, but anyone else hearing/reading this information would have no reason to know. In fact, they are more likely to believe it as truth given the prominent outlets reporting the information.

Why is this a problem? In these two instances, the information provided could lead to serious harm if proper emergency treatment is withheld or administered incorrectly. It also spreads misconceptions among the uninformed, which can lead to challenges for anyone living with food allergies as they try to discuss proper management with schools, caregivers, and restaurant staff.

We all rely on newspapers, websites, television news reports, and even social media to learn important information about the world we live in. Our recent political climate has raised awareness of ‘Fake News’ stories. There’s nothing new about this – we’ve been bombarded with fake news in the grocery store checkout aisle for decades. However, as our means of gathering information have evolved, our need to increase our savviness needs to evolve as well.

When it comes to health information, I’d trust your personal physician over mainstream media. Some reporting is well-done, but some headlines can be sensationalized or incomplete or inaccurate. If you read or hear something about a medical condition affecting you or someone you know that raises questions, it can serve as a fantastic starting point for a conversation with your physician.

I love when parents come to me with questions about stories they’ve come across. It shows they’re invested in their child’s health and they want to have a conversation to learn more. Then, it’s up to me to help offer my informed opinion based on evidence-based information and experience.

So what about when physicians are the ones reporting incorrect information through mainstream media? Most major news outlets will have medical correspondents and we’re all familiar with popular television shows featuring physicians. They end many of their segments suggesting that you talk with your physician for a reason. It is exceptionally challenging to provide specific medical information through an outlet that may reach millions of people. There are individual nuances and factors that may make the same information valid for one person, yet completely inaccurate for another.

The take-home message is to take everything you read or hear about with a grain of salt. Yes, we absolutely need our major media outlets to share information. Yes, they can provide valuable updates about the latest research findings or hot topics. However, they should never be viewed as the final say or authoritative voice on matters pertaining to medical conditions.

David Stukus, MD
Dr. David Stukus is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Section of Allergy and Immunology, at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Dr. Dave, as his patients call him, is passionate about increasing awareness for allergies and asthma. His personal life is filled with fun and chaos as he is married to a Pediatric Emergency Room physician and they have 2 energetic children. His rare free time is spent following his beloved Pittsburgh and Ohio State sports teams. Follow Dr. Dave on Twitter @AllergyKidsDoc for great allergy/asthma tips!

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