Misinformation Malady

A critique on public health education system in the age of social media

By- Mr. Ajish Francis,

Intern, Goa Medical College

“Just like how the alcohol in a sanitiser kills the virus on your palm, this one kills the one inside”.

The context – My neighbour, a modest bottle of cashew feni and a mind incapable of busting another pandemic myth.
So I poured myself some of this ‘concoction’ and pondered, not over the complex pharmacodynamics that I had just heard. More importantly I needed answers. Why is misinformation more palatable to the society today and what more can be done.

Among the many pages of Parks Textbook of Preventive and Social Medicine one finds the mention of a campaign about as old as the book itself. The Alma Ata Declation of 19781 considered as one of the greatest acheivements in the annals of public health. Born out of an ideology to make ‘Health For All’ a reality it also discusses exhaustively on health education and its principles. Healthcare has since become the reponsibility of the ones for whom it is meant, the community.

Formulation of policies is not just the burden of the government and the medical professionals anymore but also the people to whom it affects. It springs from a proposition that the members of the society have a better idea about the problems that affect them and know how to manage their healthcare systems with the available resources. But this brings us to a conundrum, in a country with a low level of health literacy does the public really know its needs ?

Based on the REALM 2 (Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Medicine) tool, a survey conducted in Karnataka showed two interesting inferences.3 One, the medical literacy of the participants were significantly better among those educated with English as a medium of instruction. Two it was significantly better among those who pursued a course with scientific background and those who did a postgraduation. English is the language of science and no amount of fingers pointed at post-colonial scars can deny that. Taking nothing away from vernacular mediums of instruction, the health of the society is much heavier when weighed against the pride of linguistic and cultural traditions. Perhaps its because of the very same pride that people are deluded to think of urea as the elixir of life.

‘The science is too sciency..’ This was the response I got when I forwarded an article busting the myth of jaggery being an ideal substitute for sugar in diabetes. We at times forget that the jargons and even the frame of writing that come so naturally to us are not written in a language thats friendly for the public. As doctors we have become good at ‘dumbing down the science’ to our patients when it comes to ailments. Its time we start dumbing down scientific journals too. I wouldnt be wrong in saying that a health magazine that is in tune with the current era has a huge economic and social potential.

There was a radiology form that got popular in Instagram and WhatsApp forwards. The indication for the scan was that the patient believed that his right kidney was stolen by the doctor. Jokes apart, the question of mistrust among the public for modern medicine is huge. The media has helped in all possible ways to nurture the hate. But addressing and acknowledging these things are very important or we would see far worse implications than the ones that are already caused by the antivac army.

As I took another sip my phone buzzed. My neighbour had sent a forward elaborating on all the antioxidants and nutrients present in the local brew. I went through the message. It had elaborated all the facts in a manner that made it look scientific while being layman at the same time. It was so convincing that I had to crosscheck the information on Google. We live in a time where even false information looks so convincing that it needs to be studied to debunk it. Probably thats what we are missing. In an era where information travels on fancy WhatsApp forwards we are too busy posting banners on roads.


  1. WHO. Declaration from the website of the World Health Organization.
  2. “Health Literacy Measurement Tools (Revised).” AHRQ, www.ahrq.gov/health-literacy/research/tools/index.html. 3. Kamath, A. (2013). Evaluation of health
  3. LITERACY status among patients in a tertiary care hospital in Coastal Karnataka, India. JOURNAL OF CLINICAL AND DIAGNOSTIC RESEARCH. https://doi.org/10.7860/jcdr/2013/6120.3608

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