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The repercussions of the information age have prompted the outbreak of a new type of epidemic — an epidemic of health and medical misinformation, which has taken social media by storm. Concerns surrounding these “infodemics” of unsubstantiated and potentially harmful medical advice rose to the forefront of national news recently because of a recent sensation on social media surrounding the drug Ozempic. Intended to treat Type 2 diabetes, the prescription drug is being credited with astonishing “weight-loss success,” and the topic “Ozempic” has accumulated over 300 million views on TikTok.

As a result, clinicians have become inundated with requests for the drug, prompting extreme market shortages. The situation is now posing problems for Type 2 diabetes patients, as the upsurge in the drug’s off-label use has made it increasingly difficult to acquire for those who really need it. Novo Nordisk, the manufacturer of Ozempic, issued a statement addressing the rise in unapproved use of the drug, saying, “We do not promote, suggest or encourage off-label use of our medicines.” 

And indeed, such unconventional use of the drug can lead to serious health complications. Their website lists possible side effects, including kidney failure, pancreatitis, thyroid tumors and gallbladder problems. Not to mention, at a steep cost of nearly $900 a month, the potential for health repercussions aren’t the only price that prospective users of the drug will have to pay. All of this considered, the question remains: Why are people continuing to buy into the narrative?

The answer may lie in American culture. The societal demand for “quick fix” medical solutions has prompted an “epidemic of over-prescribing,” in which pills are often viewed as preferable to pursuing lasting changes in behavior. The dieting industry in particular stands to profit off of this mentality, marketing diet pills and injections that entice patients with rapid solutions that claim to sidestep months of intensive fasting and exercise.

The sharp increase in demand for Ozempic has highlighted the concerning role that social media plays in contributing to this trend, with many media networks plagued with false promises of immediate health solutions. Personal anecdotes of miraculous weight loss exploit a desire among users for instant results, further blurring the boundaries between medical fact and fiction as a means of garnering views and publicity. 

This is especially problematic considering that 80% of people utilize the internet as a source of obtaining health-related information, and attempts at correcting false medical advice have often proved futile. In fact, in an NBC News interview with Nat Gyenes, who heads the Digital Health Lab at the technology nonprofit Meedan, they point out that debunking efforts often “can’t compete with the virality of the claims they seek to correct.” Corrective content and information are additionally prevented from reaching target audiences because of the presence of algorithms that curate content intended to reinforce users’ preexisting beliefs and biases.

Further complicating matters, the role of user interface in spreading these false or unsubstantiated medical claims is often unable to be remedied by the intervention of licensed health professionals. For instance, clinical practice guidelines, which provide detailed directions for doctors to use when making treatment decisions, often possess extreme conflicts of interest. Frequently written by experts with financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, these guidelines generally encourage doctors to prescribe medication as the first line of treatment rather than as a fallback solution. All of these conditions have led to the evolution of an American healthcare system that rests on a medication monopoly — one in which big pharma reigns supreme and pills are prioritized over holistic and alternative approaches.

The statistical figures corroborate this reality: between 2000 and 2012, the proportion of adults in the U.S. who were taking five or more medications nearly doubled, and this fails to account for unprescribed usage, which has largely been the case with drugs like Ozempic. Much of this increase has been attributed to the prominent role that social media platforms play in disseminating advertisements and information surrounding pharmaceuticals.

If left unchecked, the repercussions of this situation threaten to take a costly toll on the American population, with “medication overloads” estimated to result in the premature deaths of roughly 150,000 older Americans over the coming decade. Recent initiatives, such as a grass-roots movement known as “deprescribing,” have sought to counter the effects of this by systematically weaning patients off of medicines that are inappropriate, duplicative or unnecessary. A variety of campaigns are also seeking to cultivate awareness, such as the Choosing Wisely initiative, which aims to inform the public of the harms associated with prescription overuse.

The bottom line — trust your instincts. Society is just beginning to grapple with the paradoxical emergence of social media as a proponent of and adversary to systems of truth. While media networks have allowed information to proliferate at unprecedented rates, such circumstances threaten to let networks disseminate both fictitious and factual knowledge. Simply stated, if the information seems too good to be true, then chances are it probably is.

Tate Moyer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at moyert@umich.edu.