Social media platforms are valuable tools for educating patients about serious health topics, but they can also spread false and biased information with potentially harmful results, according to recent research based at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center. A recent study led by Stacy Loeb, MD, MSc, professor of urology and population health, for example, reveals that some of the most popular YouTube videos on bladder cancer score low on quality.
“Bladder cancer is the second most common urologic cancer worldwide, but evidence is lacking on the accuracy of information available on YouTube, the most popular social network,” says Dr. Loeb. “Our findings highlight an urgent need for more accurate, patient-friendly social media content.”
Majority of Videos Score Low on Quality
In the study, published in European Urology, Dr. Loeb’s team used two validated instruments—the Patient Education Materials Assessment Tool (PEMAT) and the DISCERN quality criteria for consumer health information—to assess the first 150 out of 242,000 YouTube videos on bladder cancer. They ranked the overall quality as poor to moderate in 67 percent of the videos and found that 21 percent contained a moderate to high amount of misinformation, while 17 percent showed commercial bias.
The findings are concerning considering that videos containing a moderate to high amount of misinformation reached a combined audience of more than 1.2 million, the authors note. In addition, a significant percentage of viewers used the platform to post comments seeking medical advice (20 percent), providing medical advice (9 percent), or offering support (19 percent).
In an earlier study published in European Urology, Dr. Loeb’s team conducted a similar analysis of the first 150 (out of more than 600,000) YouTube videos about prostate cancer, which had average viewership of 45,000 and audiences ranging up to 1.3 million. They found that 77 percent contained biased or potentially misinformative content in the video or comments section. Most videos (75 percent) described benefits of various treatments, while only about half adequately explained the potential harms and side effects. Another 19 percent recommended alternative therapies, such as injecting herbs into the prostate to treat cancer, according to the study. Only half of the videos discussed shared decision-making, and many were not updated to reflect the most current screening and treatment guidelines, encouraging more aggressive management than is now deemed medically necessary for low-risk disease.
Physicians Can Help Combat Spread of Misinformation
Notably, both the bladder and prostate cancer studies found that poor quality or misinformative content attracted more viewers compared with higher-quality videos, says Dr. Loeb.
“Having lots of ‘likes’ and views does not mean that a video is medically accurate,” says Dr. Loeb, who is the incoming chair of the American Urological Association Public Media Committee. “As healthcare providers, we can help counter this trend by better communicating with patients and guiding them to trustworthy sources for additional information.”
While it’s not practical to vet every online video for accuracy, there are steps that physicians can take to combat the spread of misinformation about urologic diseases, says Dr. Loeb. She offered the following tips for providers:
- Engage in shared decision-making, clearly outlining the benefits and risks of treatment and offering actionable steps for patients.
- Encourage patients to learn how to spot medical misinformation.
- Arm patients with trustworthy sources of information, such as the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network, Prostate Cancer Foundation, the Urology Care Foundation, and the National Cancer Institute.
- Actively participate in social media to disseminate accurate, evidence-based content.