Over several decades of working in medicine and on The Dr. Oz Show, I’ve heard a lot of medical conspiracy theories. And I certainly have a significant number of smart, thoughtful friends and family who have their own questions about whether these theories might have some backing to them. But until a recent study came out, I had no idea just how widely these conspiracies are believed or what a dramatic impact they can have on people’s health behaviors.
In the study, published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers surveyed 1,351 adults across America. They found that a majority of Americans were familiar with at least one medical conspiracy theory, and that a surprisingly high number of people believed them. For example, 37% of people believed that the Food and Drug Administration is “deliberately preventing the public from getting natural cures for cancer and other diseases because of pressure from drug companies.” This number went up to close to 50% when we polled our audience here at The Dr. Oz Show.
In addition, nearly one in five respondents to the researcher’s survey also said they agreed with the statement that “Health officials know that cell phones cause cancer but are doing nothing to stop it because large corporations won’t let them.” And 20% believe that doctors and the government are still promoting vaccines even though they know that they cause autism – a widely circulated idea that has been repeatedly proved false. You can learn more about each of these theories and whether there’s any evidence to back them by watching the show.
What surprised me most about this survey, though, was not necessarily that people have heard of and believe these theories. It’s the dramatic impact these theories have on behavior. For example, only 37% of people who believed three or more medical conspiracy theories got an annual physical exam, compared to 48% of people who didn’t believe any. People who believed in these conspiracy theories were also much less likely to get a flu shot, visit the dentist or use sunscreen.
I think that it’s good for people to think critically about the health information that they hear rather than just accepting it at face value. However, I start to become concerned when people’s fear starts interfering with their relationships with their doctors and affecting their motivation to protect their health. Sunscreen, flu shots, good dental care and regular checkups are essential parts of protecting yourself from things we know can hurt and even kill you.
I want to encourage everyone who has concerns about any aspect of their health, or any part of public health, to share your worries with your doctor or another medical professional. They may be able to help shed some light on which concerns are legitimate and which are simply fear-mongering. And, they may be able to present you with options to help you take care of yourself that alleviate your worries without putting you at increased risk. Keep thinking critically about your own health choices, but make sure fear doesn’t keep you from maximizing your chance at living a long, healthy life.