Health misinformation is costing U.S. lives during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. surgeon general warned last week, and health professionals, educators and others must work together to address the problem.

In a July 15 public health advisory, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy officially labeled misinformation — defined as “information that is false, inaccurate or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time” — a threat to U.S. public health. 

While not new, health misinformation has reached new levels during the COVID-19 pandemic, hindering public health’s ability to provide vaccinations and end the pandemic. Disinformation, in which false information is spread to deliberately deceive people, has also been a major problem. Surgeon General gives advisory from podium on misinformation

“We live in a world where misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation's health,” Murthy said during a White House media briefing. “While it often appears innocuous on social media apps and retail sites or search engines, the truth is that misinformation takes away our freedom to make informed decisions about our health and the health of our loved ones.” 

While about 160 million people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, a significant number of eligible people are not, and misinformation is a barrier. Even brief exposure to misinformation can lower someone’s intent to get vaccinated, a February Nature study found. As of May, 67% of unvaccinated U.S. adults believed or were unsure about a myth they had heard about COVID-19 vaccines, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation

Health misinformation has previously undermined work to reduce HIV/AIDS and Ebola infection rates, and harms everyday health, “leading people to turn down effective treatments for cancer, heart disease or other illnesses,” Murthy noted in the advisory.

To combat the problem, Murthy called for an all-of-society approach. The 22-page advisory urges leaders in education, media, medicine, research, technology and government to take action and provides specific recommendations. 

“The good news is there are steps all of us can take,” Murthy said during the briefing.

The advisory asks health professionals, who are a trusted source, to proactively engage with their patients by listening and correcting misinformation in a non-technical, personalized way. Training can be provided to help clinicians communicate with their patients, the advisory suggested. Professional associations can help their members serve as experts and share science-based information online and with the media. And health workers and organizations can partner with local groups to address community concerns and develop specialized messaging. 

Individuals can also play a role by not spreading misinformation, checking with credible sources before sharing, listening with empathy to people who have concerns, working to establish common ground and generally addressing health misinformation in their communities. 

“We must confront misinformation as a nation,” Murthy said. “Every one of us has the power and the responsibility to make a difference in this fight. Lives are depending on it.”