Oct. 26, 2021

Combating Medical Misinformation with Dr. Tara Sell [Ep. 255]

Some of the earliest documented instances of health misinformation occurred as early as the 1930s. So it’s not as recent of a phenomenon as you may think. Obviously, social media has made the speed and prevalence of health misinformation and...


Some of the earliest documented instances of health misinformation occurred as early as the 1930s. So it’s not as recent of a phenomenon as you may think. Obviously, social media has made the speed and prevalence of health misinformation and disinformation much worse.

It started with cancer misinformation, but now we are dealing with vaccine misinformation and of course, the battle field is social media.

All of the medical and technological advances we have made as a first world country don’t make a difference if we can’t overcome the health disinformation that is prevalent on social media.

Today’s guest is Dr. Tara Sell. Dr. Sell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering and a Senior Associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She conducts research to develop a greater understanding of potentially large-scale health events such as disease outbreaks, bioterrorism, natural disasters, or radiological/nuclear events. 

Dr. Sell’s work focuses on improving public health policy and practice in order to reduce the health impacts of disasters and terrorism. She works on qualitative and quantitative research analyses and uses this research to assist in the development of strategy and policy recommendations. Her primary research interests include biosecurity and biodefense, public health preparedness, emerging infectious disease, federal funding and budgeting, and nuclear preparedness policy and practice. She also serves as an Associate Editor of the peer-reviewed journal Health Security (formerly Biosecurity and Bioterrorism).

How to Discern the Truth

Determining how true information that you share on social media is can be confusing. Disinformation is designed to look like accurate information and is more easily shareable that you realize.

As a society, we have to do 2 things:

  1. We need to hold policy makers accountable to the truth and to come up with solutions to address the disinformation.
  2. We have to have a national strategy that controls the spread and sources of misinformation and a system to promote good information, increase public resiliency to misinformation and bring all of the stakeholders together.

Identifying Misinformation Needs to be a Top Priority

Misinformation is intentionally designed to play on your emotions, and be so compelling that you will also want to share it.

We need to have a unified effort to show people the tactics that are being used to make us an unwitting accomplice in the spread of misinformation.

There are online fact checking tools that simply aren’t used enough. Additionally, when misinformation is prevalent, there isn’t a cohesive strategy to help us share the truth as a countermeasure to the misinformation.

Better digital literacy will go a long way in helping combat misinformation.

Government Skepticism

One thing that is hindering the adoption of the safe and effective vaccines, is the general distrust of the government. It’s not good for the government to be playing the role as the arbiter of truth in these situations.

The government needs to be more transparent and bring together different agencies and address misinformation from a public health perspective, but it also needs to bleed into the national security side of government. 

We need a national strategy to confront health misinformation across the spectrum, so that it can more easily be identified and stamped out.

Being Caught In the Middle With Friends and Family

Many people are dreading the potential confrontations that may happen at the Thanksgiving table over the medical misinformation on the different sides of the political arguments.

If you find yourself in this situation, Tara advises:

  1. Engage respectfully. No one will be convinced of the truth if they are dismissed or ridiculed.
  2. Connect over shared values. Everyone wants their children and their families to be safe.
  3. Talk about the tactics used to spread misinformation and your experience with it.
  4. Discuss alternative explanations for the conspiracy theories and use information sources that people will accept.
  5. Provide trusted sources for information that are not the CDC or WHO since they have become targets. Use Johns Hopkins or other reputable medical sources. Enlist the help of trusted family members.

The High Cost of Misinformation

Tara’s organization did an analysis of what the actual misinformation is costing us, as medical misinformation has been declared a public health emergency.

If 5% of non-vaccination is caused by medical misinformation, that leads to a cost of $50M in harm each day of a non-Delta surge environment. It would be even bigger during the Delta surge or if that non-vaccination number due to misinformation is higher. 

If it’s 30% then that number increases to a cost of $300M dollars per day.

Who Is It Costing?

The cost of misinformation is spread out across sectors, but where ever there are people bearing more of the burden for misinformation, the associated costs are also concentrated there.

What Can You Do?

We have to face the fact that health related misinformation is going to be with us for a while. We aren’t just going to be done with it when the pandemic is over. New targets will emerge.

We have to make investments in solutions for health misinformation. We have to work on our own resilience. Encourage friends and family to be more resilient to misinformation as well.

 

Resources:

Connect with Tara on Twitter @skirkell

Chamber of Progress Website

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health



Tara Kirk Sell, PhD Profile Photo

Tara Kirk Sell, PhD

Senior Scholar, Assistant Professor

Dr. Sell is a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. At the Center, she conducts, manages, and leads research projects to develop a greater understanding of potentially large-scale health events. She also serves as an Associate Editor of the peer-reviewed journal Health Security (formerly Biosecurity and Bioterrorism). Dr. Sell codirects the Health Security PhD track within the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering.

Dr. Sell’s work focuses on improving public health policy and practice in order to reduce the health impacts of disasters and terrorism. Her primary research interests focus on health security: the broad intersection of public health and national security. She studies past responses to public health emergencies to discover ways to improve future preparedness and response. From terrorism to pandemics and natural disasters, she employs mixed methods and multidisciplinary approaches to examine how the public, practitioners, and policymakers prepare for and respond to public health emergencies. In turn, she works to build the evidence base to advance policies and practices to minimize impacts of emergent threats. Though seemingly distinct, these topics are all linked by crosscutting preparedness and response needs critical to the improvement of the field of health security.

A hallmark of her work is the discovery of scientifically rigorous results while simultaneously interfacing with policymakers, public health practitioners, and the general public to translate research findings into actionable and evidence-based practices. She works collaboratively and purposefully to translate and disseminate findings and recommendations to target audiences in meaningful ways, such as engaging in collaborative work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to improve public communication or codeveloping Event 201, an immersive pandemic scenario to engage new stakeholders such as the private sector in pandemic preparedness.

Dr. Sell currently leads a number of projects focused on improving responses to emerging outbreaks. These include efforts to understand and find solutions for misinformation during highly feared infectious disease outbreaks and to use the wisdom of the crowd through an infectious disease prediction platform that develops forecasts about infectious disease outcomes. Another project, developed with Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering collaborators, seeks to improve understanding of the health impacts and public health response priorities for longer-term electrical power outages.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Sell has worked on a range of projects to help improve the US response to the outbreak. She has provided input on research around the reopening of K-12 schools, advised the design of safe sports bubbles, and analyzed emerging information on the use of nonpharmaceutical interventions in the control of COVID-19. She has also collaborated with the World Health Organization on the development of the field of infodemiology in response to overwhelming amounts of disinformation and misinformation during COVID-19 and is leading research to improve understanding of better risk communication and management of misinformation during the pandemic.

Dr. Sell has been principal investigator on several CDC-funded projects. One incorporated a mixed-method approach using the Zika virus outbreak as a case study to understand more about how public health communication practices can be strengthened to improve public understanding, acceptance, and response during future infectious disease outbreaks. Another investigated how decisions on Ebola policies were made at the state level and what factors beyond CDC guidelines played the most significant roles in shaping state and local policy.

Dr. Sell has also led several research projects to provide strategic recommendations regarding the Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment process and the Chemical and Biological Defense Division in Department of Homeland Security. In addition, she conducts research and analysis of the funding and management of civilian biodefense, radiological/nuclear defense, and chemical defense programs in the US government, providing an accounting of federal funding on a yearly basis.

Her other research efforts focus on public health and resilience at a local level, evaluating local responses to recent outbreaks, local public health needs for community engagement, and local capabilities and needs. Dr. Sell coauthored the Rad Resilient City Preparedness Checklist, which provides cities and their neighbors with actions to save lives in the event of a nuclear detonation.

Prior to joining the Center in 2009, Dr. Sell was a professional athlete. She was a member of the USA national swim team for 8 years and served as captain for 6 USA national swim teams. In 2004, she broke the world record in the 100 breaststroke (Short Course Meters) and earned a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Dr. Sell completed her PhD at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the Department of Health Policy and Management, where she was a Sommer Scholar. Her dissertation work focused on public policy responses to emerging epidemics and, specifically, how the media and policy intertwine in the case of Ebola and the health consequences of these policy actions. She received a BA in human biology and an MA in anthropological sciences from Stanford University. In 2005, she was a Rhodes Scholar finalist.