The World Health Organization has defined an ‘infodemic’ as an ‘overabundance of information, both online and offline’. While this term is not new, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted this phenomenon and its potential harm to public health. There are many positives to the internet and social media; for instance, in a time when people were physically distanced, social media offered people a way to share information and remain socially connected. However, these communication channels also provide a platform for misinformation and disinformation to spread – the former referring to false information, and the latter being false information that is spread with the intent to mislead (Dictionary.com, 2021). The pandemic has seen an overabundance of unfiltered information about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including health claims, many of which are inaccurate with little or no evidence base. Such unreliable health claims can lead to poorly informed health choices, which may potentially have a negative impact on people’s physical and emotional well-being.
iHealthFacts.ie, created in direct response to this tsunami of misinformation and disinformation, is an Irish initiative developed by the Health Research Board-Trials Methodology Research Network (HRB-TMRN), Evidence Synthesis Ireland and Cochrane Ireland, and is based in the National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland.
The aim of iHealthFacts.ie is to help people make informed decisions about their health based on evidence by providing a platform for people to quickly and easily check the reliability of a health claim. This online resource enables the public to check the current evidence for health claims that circulate on social media. Efforts are made through boosted posts on social media to encourage people to follow our channels on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. This also draws people to the iHealthFacts website, with further information about health claims.
The iHealthFacts team consists of healthcare professionals, evidence advisers, researchers, scientists, and members of public and patient involvement (PPI) groups. This diverse group supports the systematic and rigorous evidence synthesis process. iHealthFacts fact checks health claims submitted by the public, and takes responsibility for the preliminary research, writing the initial draft of the health claim check, utilising and reviewing the wider body of literature on the question at hand, and rapidly and efficiently appraising the quality of evidence of the studies identified. Our PPI advisers play an important role in reviewing health claims to make sure they are relevant and accessible to the public.
An important aim of iHealthFacts is to encourage the public to think critically about health claims they come across. To this end, iHealthFacts offers hyperlinks to all evidence referenced within each claim and also to ‘Key Concepts’ developed by Informed Health Choices. We work closely with Informed Health Choices, whose aim is to develop and test learning resources to enable people to think critically about health claims and make informed choices. These ‘Key Concepts’ are principles that members of the public can apply when evaluating the trustworthiness of claims they may come across such as: ‘opinions alone are not a reliable basis for claims about the effects of treatments’.
iHealthFacts.ie has contributed to the fight against the COVID-19 infodemic and actively combats mis/disinformation, both nationally and internationally. iHealthFacts.ie has had over 14,000 unique users, 48,000 page views, 1500 individual searchers and 500 questions submitted by the public to be fact checked. We have fact checked 38 questions submitted by the public to date, the results of which have been widely disseminated through our different social media platforms. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the effect and reach of health information shared through social media platforms, and these platforms have long played an integral role in disseminating health information to the public.
The iHealthFacts process is also transferable to non-COVID19-related health claims and we are currently working on these. We believe iHealthFacts continues to offer a significant public service by combating misinformation and disinformation while also supporting the public to make informed decisions about their health going forward.
Further information can be found at www.iHealthFacts.ie, in a recent Open Letter in HRB Open Research and ‘Key Concepts’ developed by the Informed Health Choices.
Marina Zaki 1, Nikita Burke 1,2, Thomas Conway 2, Declan Devane 1, Elaine Finucane 1
1 School of Nursing and Midwifery, National University of Ireland Galway, Galway, Ireland
2 Evidence Synthesis Ireland, National University of Ireland Galway, Galway, Ireland
Co-publication declaration: a similar blog has been published in HRB Open Research
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