Medical folk wisdom affects health policy and behavior, study says

You may have heard it before: “Chicken soup can help you recover from illness more quickly.”

“Staying out too long in the cold weather can cause you to catch the common cold.”

“Don’t crack your knuckles! It’ll cause arthritis.”

Although some medical folk wisdom is widespread, it is often not consistent with medical evidence and scientifically backed research.

In a new study coauthored by Timothy Callaghan, School of Public Health, found that nearly all Americans—irrespective of socioeconomic status, political orientation or educational background—endorse at least some aspects of medical folk wisdom.

The study, published in Scientific Reports with Matthew Motta, Oklahoma State University, also explores another under-studied question: How do these widely held but factually inaccurate beliefs shape Americans’ health behaviors and policy preferences?

To study the pervasiveness and consequences of medical folk wisdom on health policy and behavior, the researchers designed two opinion surveys. Together, the surveys reached more than 5,000 participants who closely mirrored national benchmarks on age, race, gender and other demographic factors.

In addition to finding that nearly all Americans believe some aspects of medical folk wisdom, the researchers found that Americans with higher levels of medical folk wisdom endorsement are less likely to value medical expertise and the important role experts play in shaping health policy. This high endorsement of medical folk wisdom can have negative public health consequences, since changes in health policy are dependent on medical and scientific experts to ensure that new policies are evidence-based. Overall, medical folk wisdom endorsement could lead to lower levels of public support for evidence-based health policies.

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