MISSOULA – Heather Voorhees admits she tries to create critics with her innovative new Health Misinformation class at the University of Montana.

Dr. Voorhees, an assistant professor in UM’s Department of Communication Studies, works to instill her students with the critical thinking skills to question everything – especially in regard to their health.

“Health is everything, and you have to protect it,” she said. “I want our students to hear or read about something and go, ‘I bet there is more to that story.’ If they gain those tools, they are going to be a happier, healthier person. They are going to become a smarter consumer as they move through the world.”

Voorhees arrived at UM in fall 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when all her classes were taught remotely and competing health information flooded the internet. She also kept noticing grocery store products blaring claims like “Lightly Sweetened” or “Heart Healthy.”

What does any of it even mean? And as a specialist in interpersonal health communication, she wondered about other areas where people hear or read something but don’t fully understand the truth behind it.

“It all kind of got me thinking, why do people fall for this stuff?” she said. “Why do we trust certain people but turn our back on other people or sources of information?”

This idea stew led to the creation of her Health Misinformation class. Voorhees believes it’s the first class of its type in Montana. In fact, outside of medical schools, the only comparable class she found was a grad-level health misinformation class in Florida.

She said her class covers how to recognize mis-, mal- and disinformation. Misinformation is incorrect information spread person to person. It can cause harm but isn’t purposely malicious. Malinformation strays from the truth with intentional exaggeration to mislead someone. Disinformation is patently false and purposely used to fool someone. It can be extremely harmful.

To combat such information issues, students in Voorhees’ class spend the first month learning about science and peer-reviewed research. They learn what scientists do, how long it takes a research project to come to fruition and how maybe you shouldn’t trust one study that goes against a full body of research.

“When you don’t understand science, it’s easier to distrust it,” she said. “Say you see a headline that says, ‘Apples cure cancer.’ OK, what are some things you can look at to determine for yourself if that headline is accurate? Let’s read the empirical research that article is based on. Let’s look at how big was the sample size, when was the research conducted and who is paying for the study.”

Voorhees said long before COVID vaccines, public health was a hard sell. Take the case of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis in the 1800s. The Hungarian physician and scientist learned that male doctors in his Viennese hospital had a much higher mortality for women giving birth than those using female midwives. He eventually came to suspect this was because the men worked with cadavers and completed autopsies between delivering babies. When he suggested hand washing between procedures to lower the death rate, he was ridiculed. Semmelweis died in obscurity after being committed to an asylum, and it was only later the world learned he had been right all along.

“He was laughed out of academic conferences for suggesting hand washing,” Voorhees said. “The doctors were like, ‘If you are implying that I’m killing these patients, how dare you!’ It was an ego thing. A lot of the same things that occurred in the 1800s occur today. I use this story to show this is not new. This is what people do.”

Voorhees starts her class by assuring students she isn’t there to tell students how to vote, who to believe and what to do with their health.

“I tell them your choices are absolutely your choices,” she said. “What I am here to do is get you to stop and think. I want you to make sure your decisions are thoughtful and that you have the right information and that you are thinking about these things in the most well-rounded way you possibly can.”

Student Holly Mahon is a UM senior from Hamilton. She said the Health Misinformation class helped her fulfill a requirement for her major while teaching important subject matter before launching a career in public health.

“Learning about the foundations 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 for mis-, mal- and disinformation also is extremely important.”

Voorhees teaches that people who fall for health misinformation aren’t idiots.

“Misinformation is not an individual issue, it’s a societal issue,” she said. “There are things in our society that prime us to want to believe things. And there also are people out there working really hard to fool us. We all have a capacity to believe people who are telling us things that we really need and want to hear.”

She said the major themes of her class include understanding the types of information out there, understanding why people are trying to fool us and understanding it’s not always your fault if you believe people selling really convincing things.

“So we try to build the capacity of our students to reason and have a bit more empathy for people, too,” Voorhees said. “Then maybe we can spread some good information out there and keep people safer.”


- By Cary Shimek, UM News Service -