The medical misinformation trap

By:

Sep 15, 2022

It’s amazing to think about how far the internet has come. The internet of a mere 20 years ago is almost unrecognizable compared to its power today. And it’s not just boosting what we can accomplish; the internet is boosting people’s creativity, and acts as a springboard for innovation. In health care, the internet can connect us to doctors that we may not be able to see otherwise due to time or distance constraints. 

But there is a dark side to having everything at our fingertips. Particularly in the wake of COVID-19, medical misinformation spread rapidly throughout the country, not only disputing medical professionals’ work but creating a dangerous rhetoric around what is, and is not, medically advised. And because of the modern marvel that is the internet, misinformation spreads quickly. 

Why, though, is this the case? Why are people so eager to soak up health advice that is not evidence-based? That is to say it goes directly against what medical professionals and scientific studies recommend. Part of the answer lies in social media’s power in connecting people from all corners of the world; part of it comes from the rapidly changing knowledge surrounding COVID-19, and this is amplified when paired with declining trust in reputable news sources. While all of these factors played a part, they do not tell the full story. 

Jobs Theory

The rest of the answer for why medical misinformation spreads so easily lies in Jobs Theory, a framework for explaining consumer behavior. A “job” is the progress an individual is seeking to make at a given point in time, and people “hire” products, services, or solutions to serve that job. Jobs have three components that explain why people make the decisions they do:

  • Functional, or the physical need the consumer sets out to accomplish,
  • Social, or how the solution impacts perception by others, and
  • Emotional, or how the solution will make the consumer feel.

By understanding individuals’ Jobs to Be Done, we can better understand and influence their behaviors. 

Why do people “hire” medical misinformation?

While medical misinformation can be hired by anyone, for any health issue, the latest case study for the rapid spread of medical misinformation is the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When paired with a sizable amount of political skepticism, plus systemic distrust of the health care system and government agencies overseeing health (such as the CDC), people looked to themselves, peers, and social media to find the solution for an overwhelming job. This job could be phrased as, “help me protect myself and my loved ones from an unknown disease, so we can get through COVID-19 unharmed.” 

For the reasons mentioned above, medical misinformation was a readily available solution to “hire” to address this job. At the outset, there was little to no concrete information on how to best handle COVID-19 from the CDC or other official sources, so people started looking to fill in the gaps themselves. This became an issue as vaccines emerged; as they started to roll out, many were worried that their development was too rushed for them to work properly. This resulted in the distrust of the vaccine’s efficacy and safety. 

Some people “hired” believing the pandemic was a hoax, because it was easier and more appealing to believe that there was no threat. Some people bought into unproven cures for COVID-19, because they needed to find something tangible beyond masks and social distancing to protect themselves and their families. Some people “hired” not listening to the CDC’s recommendations on masking, social distancing, and vaccinations, for a number of reasons: it meshed better with their belief systems, they didn’t trust the CDC, they felt suited to make personal medical decisions

At its core, the misinformation spread about COVID-19 and accepted by many people touched on the emotional dimension of people’s jobs, because it provided some sort of emotional relief—comfort, security, the feeling of knowing the solution to an as-yet unsolved problem. In short, hiring medical misinformation made people feel better. In times characterized by turmoil and confusion, people look for solutions that, while they may not be the most practical or effective, make them feel the most secure and at ease. COVID-19 was—and is—one of those times. 

The medical misinformation phenomenon is something we saw with COVID-19, but COVID-19 is not the only instance of medical misinformation spreading through populations. People hire medical misinformation about other diseases and health practices every day because it has an emotional appeal. A recent study found that medical misinformation, particularly on Twitter, mostly focused on smoking and drug use; misinformation that could be hired to make people feel better about their own habits and lifestyle choices. 

Where do we go from here?

Understanding the “why” of a problem allows for a better understanding of how to develop a solution. Scientists and medical experts can share endless messaging in times of medical emergencies and public health crises. But until the messages address the emotional components of people’s jobs, people will not “hire” the solutions those messages support. Emergencies and crises are highly emotional times, so it is especially critical during these times to address people’s emotional drivers. 

As a health care industry, we have the opportunity to better understand people’s Jobs to Be Done. This is especially true in times of crisis, and a critical piece of that work requires us to continually seek to understand the root causes of people’s reasons for hiring medical misinformation. Doing so will enable leaders to figure out how to effectively spread correct information and influence behaviors—in times of emergency and in our attempts to avoid them.

Jessica is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on business model innovation in healthcare, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care delivery.