A group of students from Turku is finding an antidote to quack science, dubious medical claims and fad cures through good old fashioned detective work.
Can flu be eased with zinc tablets? Is there a connection between eating meat and cancer? Can someone develop autism if they’ve been exposed to aluminium? These are just a few of the questions that Vastalääke has provided answers to so far.
Their research couldn’t come at a better time when it seems as if pseudo-science is reaching a peak: from Gwynneth Paltrow’s Netflix show on alternative cures and therapies throwing up red flags for doctors; to an Iranian cleric suggesting that patients rub pansy oil on their anus at night to cure them of coronavirus.
“I wouldn’t encourage anyone to scroll on Facebook for too long but you might as well do some good while you’re on there” says Tatu Han one of the Vastalääke team, and a full time student.
“I feel like it is the responsibility of healthcare professionals, especially in Finland where our education is paid by society, to not limit the spread of knowledge to that short encounter with a patient. So if you can share your knowledge through other means, I feel like you should” he explains.
Vastalääke was established in 2018 with help from the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation Kansanvalistusseura, and from the original core team more students have joined the ranks to fight the spread of medical misinformation through cold hard scientific facts.
But facts alone don’t get the right sort of information to the people who need it most. The team found that you need to delivery the message with a personal touch.
“People have a tendency to believe claims that appeal to our emotions. For this reason, facts by themselves are not enough to convince the person listening or reading of the matter” says Han.
Another reason the students have heard for people seeking answers to ailments that go beyond what the doctor ordered, is that Western medicine treats individual symptoms, rather than treating patients as whole.
That’s something Vatalääke’s Oskari Välimäki disputes.
“It’s a false claim that we don’t treat people in their entirety, or pay attention to their lifestyles, of course we do” he says.
The way that healthcare systems are set up, where there’s an unwritten rule that patients should go to see a doctor with one issue at a time, could be partially responsible for this common misconception the students reckon.
A long list of topics to tackle
There’s certainly no shortage of topics to tackle when it comes to the world of medical misinformation.
With members of the Vastalaake community free to contribute to the website there are at least 170 topics waiting to be investigated.
A suggestion box on the website lets high school students suggest topics of interest, and a recent workshop in Helsinki helped more people get started researching their own medical myths which will eventually make it to the core Vastalaake team for editing.
“We are in the process of partnering with Turku University’s Centre for Language and Communication” says Oskari Välimäki.
“The fact checking will be carried out by people who have special knowledge in the topic, and after this the articles get published” he explains.
While the aim of the Vastalaake project is to explain and debunk topics on their website, there’s plenty of ongoing conversations about the subject on social media as well.
But one of the most difficult discussions to have is face-to-face with patients.
“Sometimes you hear a patient list all of their supplements that they take, and their self-diagnosis to go with them” says Tatu Han.
“And then it’s an ethical question if you should let them know that what they’re taking is not making a difference, or whether to keep quiet if the supplement is not impacting the patient’s health in a negative way” he explains.
Combining medical studies with medical myth busting
Studying full time to become a qualified doctor, while fighting medical disinformation in their spare time, has been challenging for the Vastalaake founders and their core team, but it has been paying off.
This week they won a Finnish Grand Journalism Prize SJP for their efforts to uncover medical misinformation and keep the public better informed about health-related science.
The next expansion plans include working with pharmacology and medicine students in Helsinki, and they’ve already started training with high school students on medical media literacy skills.
There’s also plans to reach out to their medical student peers in Kuopio and publish a podcast.
And the team is keeping in mind that not all the claims made online turn out to be false – one popular claim about curcumin in turmeric being helpful for pain management turned out to be valid.
“It would be cool to discover something new and truly be surprised” says Välimäki.