Don’t let online scam artists (or anyone else for that matter) fool you!
I received an e-mail recently. It looked just as my phone bill, every detail of it seemed to be real. The sender was firstname.lastname@example.org, which also seemed believable since the phone company’s name is also Telekom. Something didn’t feel right though. I got suspicious. As I navigated towards the “Pay” option, the browser showed me a weird link at the bottom. I did rather not click on it but searched for it online. The indicated e-mail address came up with an explanation that it is a known scam. I felt relieved that I did not use my data and trusted my instincts. However, many unconcerned give away their bank account numbers along with personal data without a second thought – and it is easy to figure out what happens next. So be very vigilant and don’t let anyone fool you!
It is even more important when it comes to medicine and healthcare – since fraudsters as well as fake or overhyped technologies not only play with your money but also your health.
The advantages of the medical community going online
In an age when users are able to save the 32-years-old photo editing program, MS Paint from being removed from future Microsoft releases, I do not have to insist on how much power the internet has. The information tsunami, the expansion of the boundaries of transparency, the online communities have a powerful impact on every area of our life, healthcare certainly included.
The medical community has tremendous resources at its hand for searching for information, the results of clinical studies or medical research. Everything is available online – if you are searching for it in the right places. Many online medical search engines and news sources filtering medical information help patients and doctors alike in finding relevant information about mysterious cases or therapies of clinical trials. For example, Webicina.com offers you the latest curated news in every medical field or as you definitely know, medicalfuturist.com gives you insight about the latest medical innovations.
Patients, doctors, and researchers can also easily harvest the fruits of crowdsourcing and online communities. For example, Antidote, a digital health company allows patients to find the most suitable clinical trials, helps researchers stream their latest study information to millions of patients, and even connects patients with members of the medical community directly. Smart Patients is an online community for patients and families affected by a variety of illnesses. Users can share information about treatment options, clinical trials through a built-in search engine or the latest scientific discoveries.
Online communities, social media engagement, and accessibility of information have another great influence on healthcare: patient empowerment. As the same resources are available to patients and doctors, the hierarchical and paternal relationship between the patients and their caregivers changes to an equal level partnership. As patients take their health into their own hands, the ivory tower of medicine is dismantled and a new healthcare system is born.
The internet is not a shiny, happy place
While the availability of information is undeniably positive, one of the greatest challenges is to find reliable information, more importantly, reliable medical information. Advertisements of charlatans offering hypnoses-sessions on Skype as a cure for cancer sit next to selected and curated online medical news. Fraudsters often lead their victims to believe they will receive a medical product or health service for a lower price or it will prove to be a miraculous cure for AIDS, acne, baldness, cancer or overweight. Or another group of charlatans offers drugs and medicine very cheaply through fake online pharmacies. And if you receive something for your money, in the end, it might prove to be worse than not getting anything. These “products” could do harm to your health!
Another challenge on the internet is that it rewards quantity instead of quality most of the time. The number of readers will sell a site to the advertisers, thus the number of clicks matters, which inevitably leads to overhyped news pieces with sensationalist and click-bait titles with half-truth and make-believe statements. As harmful as they are, it is very difficult to fight against such pieces as well as outright “fake news” as they go viral within seconds and people tend to remember the first piece of information about any topic they hear. Although they constitute a completely different category as online medical scams, in the long term, they are just as harmful. Such articles make you believe that miraculous cures are already available and make you less sensitive towards online health scams.
What can we do against fake medical news and fraud?
- Be vigilant! Turn critically to emails you receive from unknown sources, even from credible-looking ones. If your instinct tells you that something is not right, use the power of the internet to catch it in time! It takes only 3 seconds to look it up on Google! Don’t be lazy and naïve or else you will pay the price for it!
- Cross–reference! If you read something only on one site which seems or sounds too good to be true, it is. Period. The biggest breakthrough in the history of medicine will not appear only on a sub-level website but in major journals. And a lot of other credible journals will cite it. Many times. Also, the way reporters interpret the results of a study is just one way. If you have doubts, check out the conclusion section of the abstract of the study. That’s how the authors interpret their own results that went through peer-review too.
- Ask questions! Don’t be shy to ask questions both online and offline! We cannot all become physicians, thus we need their help in guiding patients in the jungle of information. The more you bring such topics and questions to your caregivers, the more pressure they will have to deal with it.
- Verify the claims! If a medical company claims their technology is FDA approved, you can check it yourself on the website of the FDA. The same goes for every other regulatory agency. Also, if a company refers to a study, you can check it out yourself.
- Don’t click on anything! If a website or article wants to get your attention (clickhere.com or youmustwatchthis.org), start looking for that familiar smell. Don’t click on something without hovering over the link to see where it would take you.
- Look up curated medical sites! Use Webicina.com for finding hand-selected medical resources in social media. Those will provide you with quality content. If you look for a particular study, go to Pubmed.com or use the Google Scholar. The latter uses the brain of Google to search in the biomedical and life sciences database.
With these six tactics, you arm yourself appropriately against fraudsters and click-bait, sensationalist articles about medical innovation and future technology. It is really important as I believe fake news will be even more difficult to filter out in the future. There is a new breed of video and audio manipulation tools out there, made possible by advances in artificial intelligence and computer graphics, that will allow for the creation of realistic looking footage of public figures appearing to say, well, anything. As the editor of The Guardian says, we’ve been long told not to believe everything we read, but soon we’ll have to question everything we see and hear as well.
So, let me know if you saw something credulous or over-hyped in the field of medicine or healthcare, so others could know about it, too! If we work together, we can build a more reliable and safer online space for everyone!