Review: Health Misinformation Exposure and Health Disparities: Observations and Opportunities

Exposure to health misinformation potentially contributes to or worsens health disparities.


9/20/20232 min read

Health misinformation and health disparities are two concepts that are related and also pose a threat to public health. The US Office of the Surgeon General declared health misinformation a direct challenge to public health in 2021. This review explores the connection between health misinformation and health disparities, noting their significance in public health literature due to their impact on public health. It delves into how misinformation can contribute to documented health disparities in the United States and beyond. The review also discusses potential strategies to mitigate the effects of misinformation on individuals with poor health outcomes. It emphasizes the need for further research to fill gaps in the existing evidence base regarding misinformation-focused interventions for reducing health disparities.

In recent years, news headlines have raised concerns about the impact of misinformation on public health. Although health misinformation has existed for a long time, it has become a prominent topic of discussion and research in the past decade. False or misleading health information, particularly from online sources, has been identified as a significant threat, leading to poor health-related decisions and behaviors among the population. While the information landscape is rich in content, it is also filled with inaccuracies related to health and medicine.

Research evidence has shown that disparities in health and well-being persist among different demographic groups. News reports have also expressed concern regarding the impact of misinformation within specific demographic segments. For instance, in the United States, communities of color tend to experience higher rates of disease-related illness and death compared to other demographic groups. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic prominently highlighted the emergence of health disparities and racial/ethnic inequality.

Key takeaways:

  • Misinformation can influence choices in health behavior. A significant portion of health-related behavioral theories suggests that conscious decisions in behavior are influenced by both cognitive processes and emotions that are expressed through cognition.

  • There is evidence of unequal exposure to misinformation among demographic groups, which can be attributed to deliberate campaigns conducted by industry and advocacy organizations. For instance, Tan and Bigman in their research highlight that the tobacco industry has engaged in targeted initiatives spanning decades, aiming to reach populations that have historically experienced discrimination and disparities. These efforts have been directed towards communities such as Black populations, sexual and gender minorities, and individuals without stable housing.

  • Race and ethnicity are not the sole indicators of potential disparities in health outcomes. Another predictor of both disparities and exposure to misinformation is socioeconomic status.

  • Health and digital literacy affect a person's susceptibility to health or medical misinformation.

To read the full research paper, click here

* This is a series on the blog where we summarize research papers on misinformation & health misinformation. Most people who aren’t in the academic field consider research papers didactic and boring to read, so we are simplifying research papers for easy comprehension.


Southwell, B. G., Otero Machuca, J., Cherry, S. T., Burnside, M., & Barrett, N. J. (2023). Health Misinformation Exposure and Health Disparities: Observations and Opportunities. Annual review of public health, 44, 113-130.