It has never been easier to find health and wellness information online. Yet much of the available information, particularly on social media platforms, is incomplete, not science-based or verified, and, in many instances, flat-out false.

For example, inaccurate health news may have influenced the 2016 Zika virus epidemic. A University of Wisconsin study found that misleading Zika information, such as abundant false claims that Zika was a hoax created to enrich vaccine manufacturers, had a greater reach on Facebook than reputable public health information. The Zika emergency could have ended sooner if people had better access to reliable information about what symptoms to look for and what to do.

Compounding the problem is the low health literacy rate in the United States, where an estimated 77 million adults have basic or below basic health literacy, according to a 2003 survey by the federal Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. The Institute of Medicine defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

As a result, many Americans have trouble following prescription drug labels, understanding medical terms, or knowing how often to have a preventive screening such as a colonoscopy or mammography.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, only 12 percent of Americans are “well-informed, savvy users of health care,” well below the level of other nations where citizens also have access to technology.

Creating a health-literate workforce
Comprehensive wellness programs can help employees make sound decisions and can debunk myths related to good health. MIIA’s Well Aware program offers services and resources with the most up-to-date, scientific data. These services include lifestyle-change and health literacy programs that improve overall health and well-being.

After a successful pilot, one of MIIA’s newest online educational programs, Quizzify, is being rolled out in September. Quizzify is a fun and easy-to-use learning platform that provides trivia-style quizzes to help employees break down complex topics. The goal is to present accurate information regarding popular health myths and misconceptions. The quizzes reflect the latest research in health and health care, so employees can make smart and healthy decisions.

Al Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Quizzify, said those who use Quizzify often discover that the factual information would lead them to procure less medical care rather than more. He said this is not surprising, since the misinformation readily available online often leads to overuse of the health care system, not underuse.

Lewis said helping employees understand why they don’t always need to use medical services is part of the overall education program. Excessive medical screening can lead to overdiagnosis and overtreatment, which costs employers and employees time, money, energy and worry.

We know that employees want to make the best decisions for their own health and that of their families. Happier and healthier employees are more engaged and productive at work. They are also less likely to use employer-sponsored health insurance and spend less time outside the office on unnecessary health care visits.

The reality is that better-informed employees will make better choices. It’s a good idea for managers to check on what their health insurance provider offers for wellness and health care education programs for employees.

Enjoy your summer vacation, and be sure to wait 30 minutes after eating before swimming. Oh wait, that’s a myth, too!

Myths vs. facts: Test your health and wellness literacy

How many health “facts” do we assume are true just because we’ve heard them so many times, even if there isn’t research to back them up?

Test your knowledge by responding to the following statements:

  1. You should drink eight glasses of water a day. True or false?
  2. CT scans subject the patient to unhealthy levels of radiation. True or false?
  3. Sugar makes people hyperactive. True or false?
  4. Olive oil prevents heart disease. True or false?
  5. Flavored water and sports drinks can make you fat. True or false?
  6. Fat-free and low-fat milk is better for you than whole milk. True or false?

See answers below.

  1. False. There is no scientific evidence to support the need to drink eight glasses of water per day. Water intake varies by individual. Let thirst guide your intake.
  2. True. The medical community is aware of the radiation risks associated with CT scans, but doctors admit that they rarely brief patients about it. Few patients receiving CT scans realize they could be absorbing up to 1,000 times the radiation of an X-ray. Dr. Norman Kleiman, radiation expert and researcher at Columbia University, said, “It is important to limit the number of CTs that are not essential. On a population level, even a small rise in risk translates into huge numbers, making it a public health issue.”
  3. False. This myth started back in the 1970s when a doctor wrote into the American Academy of Pediatrics that he had become aware that sugar was a leading cause of hyperactivity. But research has shown otherwise. A 1995 meta-analysis of sugar studies found that sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children.
  4. True. Scientists have found a connection between eating more olive oil and a lower risk of coronary artery disease. Olive oil’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects have also been well-documented.
  5. True for many people. Unless training for a marathon, most of us do not need the extra sugar and calories contained in flavored drinks. A 32-ounce bottle of Gatorade has 56 grams of sugar, and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is one of the largest risk factors for obesity.
  6. False, with exceptions. Research has shown that saturated fat may not be the heart disease risk it was once thought to be. Studies have also shown that there may be some advantages to drinking whole milk, such as that it can help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, specifically A, D, E and K.

Jayne Schmitz, MPH, is a MIIA Wellness Project Manager.