By Carrie Shimek, UM News Service
MISSOULA – Heather Voorhees admits she’s trying to create critics with her groundbreaking new course on health misinformation at the University of Montana.
Dr. Voorhees, an assistant professor in UM’s Department of Communication Studies, works to instill in her students the critical thinking skills to question everything—especially regarding their health.
“Health is everything and you have to take care of it,” she said. “I want our students to hear or read about something and say, ‘I bet there’s more to this story.’ If they get these tools, they’re going to be happier and healthier people.” They will become smarter consumers as they navigate the world.”
Voorhees arrived at UM in the fall of 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when all of her classes were taught remotely and competing health information flooded the Internet. She also constantly noticed grocery store products that screamed claims like “Lightly Sweetened” or “Heart Healthy.”
What does any of this even mean? And as an interpersonal health communication major, she wondered about other areas where people hear or read something but don’t fully understand the truth behind it.
“It all made me think, why do people fall for these things?” she said. “Why do we trust certain people but turn our backs on other people or sources of information?”
This idea led to her class on health misinformation. Voorhees believes this is the first class of its kind in Montana. In fact, outside of medical schools, the only comparable class he found was a city-level health disinformation class in Florida.
She said her class covers how to recognize false, malicious and misinformation. Misinformation is false information spread from person to person. It can cause harm, but it is not intentionally malicious. Misinformation deviates from the truth by deliberate exaggeration to mislead someone. Misinformation is patently false and purposefully used to mislead someone. It can be extremely harmful.
To combat such information problems, students in Voorhees’ class spend the first month studying science and peer-reviewed research. They learn what scientists do, how long a research project takes to complete, and how maybe you shouldn’t trust a study that contradicts a full study.
“When you don’t understand the science, it’s easier to distrust it,” she said. “Let’s say you see a headline that says ‘Apples cure cancer.’ Okay, so what are the things you can look at to determine for yourself if this title is accurate? Let’s read the empirical research on which this article is based. Let’s see how big the sample size is, when the study was conducted, and who is paying for the study.
Voorhees said that long before COVID vaccines, public health was a hard sell. Take the case of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss in 1800. The Hungarian physician and scientist learned that the male doctors at his Viennese hospital had a much higher mortality rate for women in labor than those using female midwives. Ultimately, he suspected this was because the men worked with cadavers and performed autopsies between births. When he suggested washing hands between procedures to reduce mortality, he was ridiculed. Semmelweis died in obscurity after being sent to an asylum, and only later did the world learn that he was right all along.
“At academic conferences, he was laughed at for suggesting hand washing,” Voorhees said. “The doctors said, ‘If you’re implying I’m killing these patients, how dare you!'” It was an ego thing. Many of the same things that happened in the 1800s are happening today. I use this story to show that this is not new. That’s what people do.
Voorhees begins his class by assuring students that he’s not there to tell them how to vote, who to trust or what to do with their health.
“I tell them your choices are absolutely your choices,” she said. “What I’m here for is to make you stop and think. I want you to make sure that your decisions are thought out and that you have the right information and that you’re thinking about these things in the most well-rounded way possible.”
Student Holly Mahon is a student at UM from Hamilton. She said the health misinformation class helped her fulfill a requirement for her major while teaching an important subject before starting a career in public health.
“Learning about the basics of how to be a smart health consumer is the most valuable thing I learned in the class,” Mahon said. “The ability to recognize the different markers of wrong, bad and misinformation is also extremely important.”
Voorhees teaches that people who fall for health misinformation are not idiots.
“Misinformation is not an individual problem, it’s a societal problem,” she said. “There are things in our society that make us want to believe things. Also, there are people who work very hard to mislead us. We all have the ability to trust people who tell us things we really need and want to hear.
She said the main topics of her class include understanding the types of information, understanding why people try to mislead us, and understanding that it’s not always your fault if you believe people are selling really convincing stuff.
“So we’re trying to build our students’ capacity to think and have a little more empathy for people,” Voorhees said. “Then maybe we can spread good information and keep people safe.”
Contact: Heather Voorhees, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at UM, 406-243-6119, [email protected].