While misinformation around science and medicine is not a new concern, it has become increasingly problematic in recent years. The issue was heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic, with misinformation about the virus and preventative public health measures spreading around the world — even as scientists were still learning about its transmission, prevention and treatment. Beyond misinformation about the pandemic, misleading, inaccurate or blatantly false information regarding other areas of public health — including vaccines, alternative medicine and stem cell treatments — has been circulating widely. This has led patients to pursue treatments that are ineffective or dangerous, impacting personal and public health. Combating misinformation should be a federal and state priority.
The spread of science and health misinformation is rampant, with false or inaccurate information about COVID-19 and a variety of other medical conditions reaching wide audiences. The stakes are high; misinformation has long-lasting effects in the community and can impact the effectiveness of public health measures like immunizations.
Stem cell interventions are another major area of concern. Online, TV and print advertisements have touted the use of stem cell interventions to treat a variety of conditions, including arthritis, neurological conditions and even COVID-19, without including information about their experimental or unproven status. Since 2016, the number of stem cell clinics has increased by 483% in the United States and 436% in Texas. This is alarming because the “treatments” promised by these stem cell clinics are unproven and can negatively impact the health of patients.
A recent Baker Institute policy brief, “Making Stem Cell Interventions and Advertisements Safer and More Effective in Texas,” highlights the prevalence of misleading information surrounding unproven stem cell interventions and provides recommendations for improving patient education and safety in Texas. We propose the following three recommendations:
- Clinics should be required to post a physical disclaimer that stem cell treatments are experimental.
- A statement about the experimental nature of stem cell treatments should be required on all related advertisements.
- It should be mandatory to report side effects from stem cell treatments to the Texas Medical Board.
On September 9, the Baker Institute also hosted an event titled, “Regenerative Medicine: Highlighting and Correcting Misinformation,” with experts Dr. Emerson Perin, Zubin Master and Emily Vraga to discuss the myths surrounding unproven stem cell interventions. During the event, Master emphasized the importance of persuasive health education and credible sources. Improving education and using “observed correction” as a method for targeting misinformation, especially on social media where there are few restrictions on what can be posted, are also key steps forward, said Vraga. These techniques could improve the quality of health information and prevent “bad actors” from spreading misinformation across various platforms.
Unfortunately, stem cells are not a cure-all. Despite advertisements that suggest otherwise, there is not yet any proof that stem cell treatments improve or cure arthritis, COVID-19 or any neurological conditions. But advertisements about stem cell interventions have led many people to believe that these are viable treatment options, in part because the ads fail to disclose the potential harmful consequences — including bacterial infections, tumors, blindness and even death.
Combatting misinformation in science and health is a critical issue that cannot be ignored. Federal and state policymakers must take concrete steps to ensure that information about health interventions is accurate and credible. In Texas, immediate action, as suggested in the above recommendations, is required to address the spread of misleading information in the public discourse regarding stem cell interventions.