False theories about Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest prompt need for medical facts

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published January 4, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Online theories have blamed Damar Hamlin’s mid-game cardiac arrest on COVID-19 vaccines, showing that medical misinformation remains rampant among the general public.

  • Clinicians, researchers, educators, and health journalists can help educate the public. Trained physicians can help counteract medical misinformation by promoting science literacy and debunking sources.

  • When educating a patient regarding medical misinformation, physicians should try to remain compassionate, form a connection, and find common ground.

On January 2, 2023, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin received a punishing hit in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals. He collapsed to the ground and experienced cardiac arrest.

Online buzz centered on speculation that the COVID-19 vaccination was a possible cause, as reported by Fortune Well.[] Although viruses and vaccines can cause myocarditis, which could lead to cardiac arrest, such occurrences are rare.

Medical misinformation regarding COVID-19 and other high-profile medical topics has become rampant, resulting in people avoiding COVID-19 vaccines, masking, and physical distancing, while using unproven treatments.

To help physicians counter false medical claims, professional organizations have offered their take on how to combat this misinformation.

AMA recommendations

Medical journals are uniquely poised to gather and publish credible research on medical information and can develop topics that provide medical education to the public. Along these lines, the AMA cited a JAMA essay that called for a global response to medical information using four steps.[]

  1. Limit dissemination. Physicians can help identify those spreading misinformation. Consequently, regulators and social media representatives can limit the sources by which the public attains information. Editors at publications can focus on balanced reporting and refuse to legitimize sources of false information.

  2. Promote science literacy. Students in primary and secondary schools can be taught the scientific method and critical-thinking skills to help build immunity against false medical information. Universities can ensure that their students are well-versed in common cognitive errors and logical fallacies involving qualitative and quantitative data.

  3. Educate the public. Physicians, healthcare organizations, and public health agencies can bolster a general comprehension of medical science via their media outlets. This can help combat misinformation.

  4. Debunk the source. Physicians and medical journalists, as well as the journalism community, can directly refute misinformation and explain its origins. When rebutting these claims, professionals can shed light on the purveyors’ lack of credentials—and expose possible conflicts of interest.

US Surgeon General advice

An advisory helmed by current US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA, offered insightful guidance to be proactive when engaging patients and the public regarding health misinformation.

“Doctors, nurses, and other clinicians are highly trusted and can be effective in addressing health misinformation,” Murthy wrote in a 2021 white paper titled Confronting Health Misinformation.[] If you are a clinician, take the time to understand each patient’s knowledge, beliefs, and values. Listen with empathy, and when possible, correct misinformation in personalized ways.”

"When addressing health concerns, consider using less technical language that is accessible to all patients. Find opportunities to promote patient health literacy on a regular basis."

US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA

Regarding technology and media, professional associations can train members to serve as subject-matter experts for journalists. This training can focus on patients’ needs, backgrounds, and experiences. These experts can then disseminate peer-reviewed research and expert opinions online. Health professionals can also ally with community stakeholders to create local public-health messages.

3 components of educating patients

Authors writing in American Family Physician, the medical journal of the American Association of Family Practice (AAFP), noted that online and offline interventions mandate different approaches.[]

"In offline contexts, such as an office visit, an appropriate setting should be provided to start a conversation about health beliefs to educate patients."

Shajahan, et al., American Family Physician

The article defined three components of offline education efforts:

  • Compassion. Ask open-ended questions—for example, “What concerns you most?”—and encourage interaction with the patient. Be sensitive to patient backgrounds and beliefs.

  • Connection. Empathize with your patient’s needs and acknowledge which of their beliefs may be true. Then, explain what’s false—and why. Direct the patient to evidence-based information sources.

  • Collaboration. Identify common ground with the patient as a possible basis for educating them in the future.

The authors also recommended avoiding engaging with false online information because it may boost the profile of the source.

"It is best not to reshare or comment on misinformation, even in an attempt to correct it. For the same reason, beware of and ignore internet bots, trolls, and spam."

Shajahan, et al., American Family Physician

“The most effective solution to limit the reach of inaccurate online information is to expose internet users to more accurate than inaccurate information. Contribute to improving this balance by viewing, liking, resharing, and commenting on verified content from reliable sources,” they wrote.

For physicians with an online social media presence, the authors suggested regularly publishing accurate, reliable medical information.

What this means for you

Medical misinformation is a potential threat to global health. It can erode the cohesiveness of society and contribute to growing social disparities and stigmas. Although you have limited time with patients in any office visit, address medical misinformation with them when you can. Physicians are trusted by patients and will greatly value your advice.

Read Next: How clinicians can counteract medical misinformation
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