Future Oncology Vol. 16 No. 23 | Commentary

What is the alternative? Responding strategically to cancer misinformation


In a 2018 survey, the American Society of Clinical Oncology revealed that nearly four in ten Americans believe cancer can be cured by alternative therapy alone [1]. This is alarming, given research which has found that cancer patients who elect to utilize only alternative therapies have higher mortality rates than those who receive conventional cancer therapy [2]. Confidence in the efficacy of alternative therapies can be extremely costly, often leading patients to fundraise online or travel abroad in search of treatments with no proven benefit [3,4]. Inaccurate information about cancer treatment has many sources: individuals with perceived medical expertise (such as celebrity doctors and ‘health gurus’), influential social media personalities, alternative medicine practitioners, politicians, activists and mass media have all been identified as vectors for misinformation [5]. Their influence is amplified by the internet, where, unfortunately, false information has been shown to spread faster, farther and more broadly than truth [6]. Such threats to patient safety are understandably disheartening. Fortunately, public trust in medical scientists remains high [7]. A 2020 survey of adults in the USA by the Pew Research Center found that 87% of individuals trust medical scientists – higher than any other professional group, including members of the military, clergy and educators [7]. Notably, levels of public trust in medical professionals could potentially have risen even higher during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A national survey conducted among American adults in April 2020 found confidence in hospitals and physicians to be at 97% and confidence in scientists and researchers to be at 93% [8]. Furthermore, three out of five respondents in the Pew survey expressed a desire for scientists to ‘take an active role in policy debates’ [7]. Not only are medical experts trusted, but the public wants to hear from them.

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