With the advancement and prevalence of the internet in society’s everyday life, along came platforms for misinformation to spread. These platforms serve as ways for patients to get answers to medical questions from unreliable sources.
A recent study, presented at the 2022 Society of Women in Urology Annual Clinical Mentoring Conference, investigates the quality of information regarding urinary tract infections (UTIs) on the social media platform Reddit.1 In an interview with Urology Times, coauthor Rena D. Malik, MD, discusses why it is important for urologists to pay attention to the content on the internet and what they can do to minimize misinformation. Malik is an assistant professor of surgery and director of female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
It's well understood that people are finding information online, and there are varying degrees of misinformation on social media [and] on public forums. A lot of people are getting information online from various sources and using that to manage their health. Particularly in patients who have recurrent urinary tract infections, they find themselves often frustrated and desperate to find information about how to manage and prevent these recurrences. So, that was the impetus for looking at this study and looking at a publicly available forum [that] is very popular, called Reddit, to identify what sort of themes and what sort of information people are sharing. Also, [we wanted to understand] what the quality of that information [was].
We looked at 4 major subreddits and we identified about 300 posts that are relevant to recurrent UTIs. We found a very small subset of them talked about prevention or treating recurrent UTIs. Of those, 85% were by regular users and regular patients—not health care providers [or] experts. Very few of them—less than 1%—cited an actual source for their content. We used a validated questionnaire called the DISCERN to look at the quality of the content, and 83% of them were low-quality. Some examples were people who talked about things like recurrent UTIs being due to vascular problems or being cured by fasting, none of which are necessarily recommended by the guidelines, and certainly could potentially lead to delay in treatment or harmful sequelae by patients.
I think we have to be cognizant that our patients are getting information online. They may not feel comfortable sharing that with you, and they may be doing things that are actually creating harm, [like] impacting their vaginal microbiome, that could be contributing to their recurrence in urinary tract infections. So, I think it's important to ask our patients and make it a space where they can feel comfortable sharing the information they've learned. Also, [it's important] for us to provide quality and thoughtful patient counseling and education in the best way that we can. I don't expect all urologists to get on social media and start making content about recurrent UTIs on Reddit. But I think we just have to be open to understanding that our patients are looking online and are sometimes finding poor-quality and misinformative content.
I think it's important to be aware of what's out there on social media. That's why we do studies like this—to really highlight some of the misinformation that's prevalent across social media. If you enjoy social media and [that’s] something that you want to do as part of your routine, you can start posting high-quality content on a variety of social media platforms to reach people and to give credibility to quality content online.
I think this area of misinformation in recurrent urinary tract infections is really concerning. There are lots of people preying on these unknowing consumers, trying to get them to buy products that are unverified or not effective. I think we as urologists have to be proactive in providing information to our patients so that they avoid financial and potentially bodily harm from this sort of misinformation.
1. Khan Z, Kenee PRM, Abouzaglo S, et al. Assessing quality of information about uncomplicated recurrent urinary tract infections on Reddit. Paper presented at: 2022 Society of Women in Urology Annual Clinical Mentoring Conference; February 7-9, 2022; New Orleans, Louisiana. Poster #6295.