Increasingly there is a cultural trend toward health care freedom and empowerment. This trend is partly a reaction to the paternalism of the past, and reflects an overall change in attitude by the public toward all institutions and authority. Within medicine there has also been a move toward the partnership model of practice – where patients are well-informed full partners in the decision-making process. But this trend has also been fueled by providers who want the public to have the freedom to choose their unconventional treatment, even if it does not meet reasonable standards for evidence or even ethics.

In addition the public must deal with an increasingly free health care market with an expanding array of products, and claims to back them up. The internet has served to facilitate and accelerate this process.

Therefore public education about common health matters is more important than ever. Part of the mission for this blog is to improve public health education, to correct common misconceptions, help put recent research into proper perspective, and to counter false or misleading propaganda or marketing claims. There seems to be an intense need for such correction, and mainstream media and the internet are full of misinformation. News outlets are a mixed-bag, sometimes providing helpful information, but more often emphasizing unusual or dramatic health risks while ignoring far more important but less interesting ones.

A new global survey reveals that the public is indeed largely misinformed about the risk factors for cancer, which is a reasonable marker for overall health care attitudes. Further, the survey shows that high-income countries are often more misinformed than low income countries. This might reflect the effect of marketing efforts made in higher-income countries.

Here are the key findings of the survey:

– People in high-income countries were the least likely to believe that drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer. In that group, 42% said alcohol does not increase the risk. That compares with only 26% of respondents in middle-income countries and 15% in low-income countries saying that alcohol use does not increase the risk of cancer. In fact, cancer risk rises as alcohol intake increases.

– In high-income countries, the hazards of not eating enough fruits and vegetables scored more highly as a perceived risk (59%) than alcohol intake did (51%), even though the scientific evidence for the protective effect of fruit and vegetables is weaker than the evidence that alcohol intake is harmful.

– In rich countries, stress (57%) and air pollution (78%) scored higher as perceived risk factors for cancer than did alcohol intake. However, stress is not recognized as a cause of cancer and air pollution is a minor contributor compared with alcohol consumption.

– People in low- and middle-income countries have more pessimistic beliefs about cancer treatment than those in high-income countries. One of the more important problematic beliefs in lower-income countries concerned perceptions about the curability of cancer. The survey found that in such countries 48% said that “not much can be done” to cure cancer or that they didn’t know whether anything could be done. That compares with 39% in middle-income countries and 17% in high-income countries. Such a misbelief is worrying because it might deter people from participating in cancer screening programmes, which are important for saving lives.

– In general, people in all countries are more ready to accept that things outside of their control might cause cancer (such as air pollution), than things that are within their own control (such as overweight, which is a well-established cancer risk factor).

– An astonishing 75% percent of people in low-income countries said their preference was for their doctor to make all the treatment decisions. Only 8% said the doctor and patient should decide together and 9% said the patient should decide. That compares with a preference in rich countries for a more equitable decision-making style that emphasises self-determination, with 72% saying either that the decision should be made together or rest with the patient alone.

In countries like the US and the UK the public wants to be more involved in their own health care decisions and yet they were poorly informed about the scientific data regarding basic cancer risk factors.

It is not surprising to me that in wealthy countries people overestimate the impact of diet and stress on their cancer risk. This is in line with much “alternative” health marketing, which emphasizes all things “natural” as a marketing strategy. Improved nutrition and stress reduction are central to the claims of many dubious products and alternative ideologies.

There is also a great deal of propaganda aimed at sowing distrust in the institutions of medicine. Popular author Kevin Trudeau (who has been sanctioned by the FTC for false advertising), for example, has made millions telling the public not to trust their doctors, and that nutrition and “natural” treatments can prevent and even cure cancer. Scientific information about cancer risk factors is often diluted in a sea of misinformation, or is often dismissed as the self-serving lies of “the cancer treatment industry” or “big pharma” with the government as their lap dog.

This recent survey suggests that the propaganda is working and as a result the public has distorted and misleading beliefs about cancer risk factors – all in conjunction with the belief that people should be taking more personal responsibility for their health.

This points to the need for more efforts toward public education about basic health issues – especially those that affect their personal choices. How to deal with the misinformation is a much more difficult issue. As Kevin Trudeau discovered, he could easily get around the FTC sanctions by simply selling misinformation rather than products, because information is protected free-speech. There does not appear to be regulations in place to deal with the deliberate marketing of false or misleading information for its own sake (as the product itself) nor is it clear what form such regulations would or should take, if any.

For now the only remedy is to work toward a more skeptical and scientifically literate public.

Posted by Steven Novella