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‘YouTube medicine’ criticised by researchers over misleading cancer advice

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The most popular YouTube videos on prostate cancer often offer misleading or biased medical information that poses potential health risks on patients, a study by researchers at the New York University (NYU) School of Medicine shows.

Collaborating with NYU’s Perlmutter Cancer Centre, the team analysed the 150 most-viewed YouTube videos on the disease and found that 77 per cent of the videos had factual errors or biased content in either the video or its comments section.

Researchers say the YouTube audience for these videos was large, with average total viewership of 45,000 and as high as 1.3 million for specific videos. Over 600,000 prostate cancer videos are posted on the social media platform.

“Our study shows that people really need to be wary of many YouTube videos on prostate cancer,” says study senior investigator and urologist Stacy Loeb, who chairs a panel of social media experts for the American Urological Association (AUA).

“There is valuable information available in them, but people need to check the source to make sure it’s credible and to beware of how quickly videos become outdated as care guidelines constantly evolve with the science,” Loeb added.

The study also found that 75 per cent of the videos fully described the benefits of various treatments while only 53 per cent sufficiently captured potential harm and side effects.

Furthermore, another 19 per cent of content recommended alternative or complementary therapies that are largely unproven, according to the authors of the study, with the study citing one potentially harmful example in which a video promoted “injecting herbs” into the prostate to treat the cancer - an assertion not backed by any medical evidence.

According to Loeb, only half of the videos analysed describe “shared decision-making”, which is the current standard of care in prostate cancer screening and treatment in the US.

The latest American guidelines, revised last year, recommend that men between the ages of 55 and 69 should talk to their doctors about the risks and benefits of blood-test screening for prostate cancer, with Loeb saying many popular videos predate this change and encourage more aggressive treatment, which is now considered medically necessary for low-risk disease.

Loeb advised that care providers should direct their patients to trusted sources for information, such as the Prostate Cancer Foundation and National Cancer Institute websites and encourages other physicians and providers to participate in social media platforms like YouTube to produce videos that offer evidence-based advice.

For their latest analysis, Loeb and her team (which included social media experts) evaluated each video’s educational value based on more than a dozen features, including accuracy, level of misinformation and commercial bias, with Loeb noting that previous studies on prostate cancer videos were smaller and did not use standardised techniques to evaluate their content.

The study was published in the journal European Urology online.

In October, researchers and scientists from the University of Portsmouth announced the development of a robot, used as the new ‘weapon of choice’ to detect and treat prostate cancer.

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