How To Spot Fake Medical News With The SATCoW Method

Photo by Sara Bakhshi on Unsplash

By Dr. Lorianne Reyes (LoriMD.com)

The web is drowning on health information. Patients are not blind to their conditions and treatment options anymore. And that’s a good thing!

Searching for knowledge about your health is good practice that can help you get better treatment by collaborating with your doctor. But you need to be careful not to fall on the trap of what I call the “fake medical news.”

There are specific characteristics that every credible medical publication should follow, and that any fake medical news won’t have. In this article, I will show you two examples of medical news, and in the end, you will be able to determine which one is fake and which one is real, by using an acronym that I developed: SATCoW (Sources, Authorship, Title, Content, Writing).

These are our samples:

Can you tell which one is fake?

Sources

You might end up reading an article through some link you found on another website. Once you are there, you will want to pay attention to where the link took you.

News #1 is not only on the website of a very recognized university, but Stanford is also the same place where the discovery at hand was made!

Figure 1. Website of News #1

News #2 is found on a website that seems to be popular and dedicated to medical news. But if you keep clicking, you will find that the site revolves around the same topics (probably a commercial agenda), the images are weird, and it has many ads around.

Figure 2. Website of News #2

If you are wondering what sources you can trust, here are some: WebMD, MedScape, PubMed, PLOS ONE, Cochrane, Mayo Clinic, Merck Manuals, FDA, CDC.

But, I would say, the most critical factor in identifying real medical news, is the sources from where the authors took the information.

In the news #2, there are no links, citations, or references from where to confirm what they are saying. News #1, on the other hand, is a particular case, because the information is taken from a primary source since the discovery on the title was made in Stanford University. So, there is not much citation or reference, but you can see that every person that the author mentions has a link to more information, along with a description of credentials, workplace, and dates. The proof of authenticity is somewhat overwhelming.

Figure 3. Screenshot of news #1

In most real medical news, you will find at least one link or citation to a scholarly journal.

Authorship

Figure 4. Author of News #1
Figure 5. Author of News #2

In news #1, there’s a description of the author that gives you the necessary information to know that she is someone qualified to write about a topic like this. It also has a way of contacting her, and even her picture!

As far as Dr. Heather Morris, from news #2, unless we do an independent Google search, we have no ways of even knowing if she is a real person, or if she is an MD instead of a Ph.D. There’s no information about her, the name doesn’t have a link, and there is no way of contacting her.

Title

What is the intention of the title? Is it to inform, convince, or impress?

The title of news #1 is straightforward. Sounds like something interesting, but there’s no more to it, just stating a fact. Something noteworthy is that the word “vaccine” is on quotes, like telling you that you should be aware of the use of this word, or that there’s something to clarify, and they are being upfront about it.

News #2 sounds too good to be true. First, it presents one single drug as being able to target a broad spectrum of diseases; not that this can’t be possible, but the delimitation as to what the medication can treat is very vague. There are many types of stomach and bowel diseases, in different variations, and from various causes, but it’s not specifying which kind of disease. I’ve seen this a lot in articles about products that claim to cure cancer; they fail to answer what type of cancer and at what stage.

Second, it’s using the word “curing,” and there are a lot of problems with this word. “Cure” is a word that is implicitly considered sacred in the medical community. Nobel prizes are awarded for cures, and most diseases can only be treated to a certain point rather than cured. Scientific writers are extremely cautious about the use of this word. Also, the fact that the word is in the present participle tense (i.e., ending in “-ing”) tells you that something there, is not confirmed, it gives the impression that something is happening sporadically and without any kind of control.

One more problem with news #2’s title is that it defies “modern medicine.” Why would medical news question medicine itself?

Content

When looking at the content, you should be aware of the following red flags:

  • The article doesn’t deliver what the title promises: perhaps it was a click bait, and when you start reading, it’s not exactly what you expected to find there, or it starts deviating very soon from the matter at hand.
  • Patient testimonials: I haven’t seen yet any article about the effectiveness of a drug that includes patient testimonials. This is usually reserved for ads or sociologic studies. Many times journalists interview patients to provide insight and perspective over a problem, but it never comes as a testimonial of how wonderful a specific drug or product is. The reason is that these are subjective and don’t represent the whole population. Relying on testimonials for drug use and development would be fatal.
  • The buzzwords “natural,” “naturopathic,” “holistic,” “organic,” “essential oils,” and the like, carry weight in the article. This, obviously, depends on the topic, but I would say that 99% of the time, this is a red flag.
  • The premise is based on factoids: If we look at the news #2, it has some truth on it, because if you do the research, you will find that one of the main articles on which they might have based their claims is legit. However, the news never says that cannabis cures gastrointestinal diseases, but that it may be useful in the control of symptoms in a certain kind of patients; plus, it also clarifies that there is not enough evidence, and a lot is not clear yet about what has been found on the topic.
  • Has weird (or disgusting) pictures: many of these “news” want to call your attention with ugly pictures, or drastic before/after images. Most of these pictures are photoshopped or taken out of context.

Writing

Even when you are not reading them from a scholarly journal, real medical news are published by trained writers and revised multiple times. So, it is to assume that the writing will be, at least, near to impeccable.

News #2, as pointed out in Figure 6, starts with a grammatical error. Also (as you can see in the next screenshot) it’s full of one-sentence paragraphs, which was either made on purpose by a copywriter or, as I suspect, it’s just the product of poor writing skills. Moreover, the language is too basic, and the choice of words is lazy, not to mention other mistakes that can be spotted from a distance by anyone with decent grammar skills.

Figure 6. Introduction of News #2
Figure 7. Screenshot of the writing of News #2
Figure 3. Writing of News #1

On the contrary, news #1 looks well structured, and you can tell that the person who redacted it did it at a professional level, and some editing was involved.

Lousy writing might not be true for all fake medical news, but it’s a typical pattern.

Conclusion

With this SATCoW method, you should be able to identify almost any fake medical news.

Let me know on the comments what was the last craziest fake medical news you heard or read.