Healthcare systems across the developed world pride themselves on being as evidence based as possible. One would think therefore that given the rigor doctors use in coming to their conclusions, that faith in their prognoses would be high among the public. A recent study from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz suggests that things might not be so straightforward however. The study suggests that people who are prone to believe in conspiracy theories are less likely to trust what their doctor tells them.
“We have identified a significant correlation,” the researchers say. “The more pronounced the conspiracy mentality of a person, the more that individual will tend to display a positive attitude towards alternative concepts and reject the use of conventional medical treatments such as vaccination and antibiotic therapy.”
Psychologists regard such a conspiracy mentality as a stable personality characteristic, with many of those with such a disposition believing that the world is run by a hidden elite. It’s often correlated with a lack of control over their own circumstances.
This has worrying consequences in medicine, as people can easily favor complementary or alternative medicine rather than scientifically supported treatments. The research found that support for these alternative treatments was much higher among those who also have a conspiracy mindset.
The study revealed that at the heart of this support for conspiracy theories was a fundamental distrust of power structures, and those in positions of power.
“Anything considered to have power and influence, such as the pharmaceutical industry, is treated as being highly dubious by conspiracy theorists,” the authors say.
One example from the research revolved around a fictitious herbal drug that could supposedly help to treat a range of conditions, from gastritis to depression. Those with a conspiracy theory mentality consistently rated the drug more positively, and especially when they thought the drug was developed by patients rather than the pharmaceutical industry.
Suffice to say, the researchers don’t say quite how many people tend to have this conspiracy theory mentality, and therefore it’s not easy to appreciate how big a problem it can be for the industry. It is however something for the sector to keep in mind, as different people can react very differently to proposed treatments.
“An individual’s understanding of his or her illness and choice of treatment may thus depend on ideology-related personality traits much more than on rational considerations,” the authors say.
Of course, such challenges are not helped by the amount of misinformation online about various conditions. For instance, I wrote recently about a study looking at the information online about the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine.
The researchers analyzed the web pages in the top 200 positions for searchers on the ‘vaccines autism’ keyword. Worryingly they found that up to 24% of the websites have a negative stance on vaccines, with such a website listed in the top 10 of both UK and Australian versions of Google (although not on Google.com).
“This study reveals a pollution of the health information available to the public with misinformation that can potentially impact on public health. It also shows that weak scientific studies can have a detrimental impact on the public,” the authors say.
If one is of a sceptical nature already, then I dare say finding poor quality information online may not help matters. The two studies underline some of the challenges facing the sector in ensuring all portions of society have the best information available to them, and importantly, that they act on it.