Patients May Often Be The Ones Who Bring Misinformation to the Pharmacy


Expert weighs the benefits and pitfalls of social media, the importance of quality information from credible journal sources, and why information that sparks an emotional response can be more influential than evidence-based facts.

Kathryn Marwitz, PharmD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Manchester University in Fort Wayne, Indiana, discusses the ease by which misinformation could spread in pharmacy practice with Pharmacy Times at the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) Annual Meeting & Exposition in Phoenix, Arizona, happening March 24 to 27.

PT Staff: How does misinformation spread in the pharmacist’s workplace, and what could be the repercussions on patient wellbeing?

Kathryn Marwitz, PharmD, MPH: So I like to think about misinformation kind of everywhere and in the pharmacy space is just 1 example. For a lot of reasons, patients, the people that we care for, probably hear read share misinformation before they even stepped foot in the pharmacy. And so this misinformation spread isn't coming from the pharmacy, but patients are bringing it to the pharmacy. And they're sharing it in their communities. And even maybe, worst case scenario, patients may hear about misinformation and that may prevent them from coming into the pharmacy, for example, to receive a vaccine. And so this information can have an impact on patient care for those reasons that patients may either not come into the pharmacy to get the care that might be recommended. Or they may have questions for the pharmacist. And that question may come out as a piece of misinformation and the pharmacist may need to respond to that—they may need to be ready to respond to that, to kind of create that 2-way dialogue with patients.

PT Staff: What is the relevance of social media in pushing the spread of misinformation? Conversely, can it be used as a force of good?

Kathryn Marwitz, PharmD, MPH: Yeah, so social media is, of course, a huge driver to spread misinformation. And the reason is because social media is a way for all of us to engage with each other and with strangers online. And because of that, anyone can really share anything. It's really awesome when you come across a cool video, something that's really engaging, something that's funny.

The benefits of social media are that it's engaging, it's fun, it's entertaining. The downsides are that anyone can really say anything. And you are totally allowed to do that. And so on the 1 hand, you can have experts hopping on social media and sharing really awesome evidence-based information; and, you can also have folks who hear something, think something, and they can get online and share it. And then you can also have folks who want to deliberately share misinformation— and they can get online and can share that too. Part of the algorithms with social media is that controversial or engaging content is what goes viral. And so, when you have content that sparks an emotional response, that's the stuff that people jump in on. They share it, they respond to it, and that's not always the evidence-based information, because to be honest, evidence-based information tend to be very upfront, very factual. And it's not always super interesting.

So people are looking for the things that spark an interest, that elicit an emotional response. Social media really does that. It propels that content forward, much more than maybe the more boring content.

I think we saw a lot of this during the pandemic, a lot of scientists and healthcare providers and others who have evidence-based information to share, would jump on trends [like] doing dance trends or pulling in content from other influencers, for example. And so, you might be able to take really more dry content and make it more fun by using trends, or by using sound bites that are trending at the moment.

I think another way you can do this is you can work on building your credibility. So can you build an audience. Say I am this expert, I'm going to take this time to digest evidence-based information, I'm going to share it with you, and you can come to me and I will share it out. And I'll do my best to make it understandable, make it bite-sized so that you don't get bored. And then the more that someone spends time doing that—building that credibility and building that audience— they can kind of elevate their own platform and hopefully get elevated by other people to when we saw that during the pandemic, there are a lot of really good influencers who are sharing really great information.

PT Staff: Are certain social media platforms worse culprits for the spread of misinformation?

Kathryn Marwitz, PharmD, MPH: I don't know if- I mean, I'm sure it's been studied. And I think that intuitively there are probably some platforms that are worse than others. But I like to think about kind of the way that information is spread. So certain platforms that allow maybe video content, or short bits of information that can be taken out of context, can really spread misinformation, but I think all platforms are at risk of spreading misinformation. And then conversely, all platforms can share really good information too. So it's really dependent on the user and the intent.

PT Staff: How is a journalistic source significant in combatting pharmaceutical misinformation?

Kathryn Marwitz, PharmD, MPH: Journals play a really important role in the scientific space. And so, if you want to put out credible evidence-based information, you need to publish it in a well-received peer reviewed journal. Most scientists and researchers and healthcare providers know about the journals that are credible in their spaces, and they're publishing their information there.

That being said, there are less credible or non-credible journals and information can end up in those journals too. And so, as a scientist, you are putting your information in the credible spaces. However, I like to think of it as 2-step process because if you put it into a journal, it's not written in a way that's digestible to the average person. We know that when I publish in a journal, I'm writing to an audience of my peers. I'm not writing it to my family and my friends. And so if I if they read my journal article that may not be digestible to them, if they don't have the same expertise that I do. And so, scientists can take that extra step to then take that information and make it more digestible. And we see that we see journals tweeting out links to journal articles and giving sound bits and little pieces of those journal articles, we see researchers breaking down the key points and trying to say here is the technical speak.

And this is what it actually means in practice. So, journal articles in and of themselves are for our peers, for our research colleagues, and then we have to translate that to be understandable to the average person. We see that because journal articles tend to be accessible to the public, they can also be taken out of context. And so, it's really important that researchers own their research, and they share it how they want it to be interpreted. This is what I meant when I when I published this article, this was the context I was publishing it under. And if it's taken out of context, can you speak up and say, “Hey, that's not quite what I meant.”

PT Staff: Is it possible that a peer-reviewed journal could not be as reputable?

Kathryn Marwitz, PharmD, MPH: So, I'm going say no, but if you're a researcher, if you're a healthcare provider, if you're publishing, you know, there's something called predatory journals. And so there's good compilations online where these are journals kind of pop up left and right, and you might stay away from those. It's really up to the researcher to identify this is an evidence-based journal,. this is the journal I want to publish in. But it's really hard to make generalizations about any journals at all. So, I would say no, we tend to know the peer reviewed journals that are that are good.

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