The pandemic has generated an unprecedented spread of medical misinformation.
As a consequence, many have come to mistrust medical and research institutions.
Clinicians are well-positioned to combat the spread of misinformation by engaging with patients and using social media platforms to curb falsehoods.
The COVID-19 pandemic generated a wave of new information. Researchers from around the world have published nearly 90,000 papers about COVID-19 between the start of the pandemic and October 2020. Unfortunately, along with quality clinical research came rampant misinformation, which the WHO defines as an “infodemic.”
While the infodemic has had dire consequences, clinicians are poised to thwart its spread.
The dangers of health misinformation
What's behind the 'infodemic'?
According to the WHO, the overwhelming amount of misinformation that coincided with the COVID-19 outbreak is the driving force behind the infodemic. “An infodemic can intensify or lengthen outbreaks when people are unsure about what they need to do to protect their health and the health of people around them,” the WHO wrote.
Driven by modern communications technology, the infodemic spread with unprecedented speed. Medical Information is now easily accessible and can be shared widely within seconds. For example, social media platforms have become a premier destination for news, updates, and even medical advice.
Unfortunately, misinformation spreads just as easily, sometimes leading to widespread mistrust of government agencies as well as medical and research institutions. Now, an aura of doubt and suspicion hovers over science, creating a self-propagating cycle.
The consequences are dire. Misinformation can lead people to avoid life-saving public health measures and to use unproven, dangerous treatments. For example, a 2021 study showed that after a short exposure to COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, participants were less likely to want a COVID-19 vaccine.
"Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. … Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort."
— US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General, issued an advisory on the subject.
“Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health,” Murthy wrote. “It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.”
What role can physicians play?
Clinicians are well-positioned to combat the spread of misinformation using these steps:
Engage with patients
Clinicians are often highly trusted and can be an effective tool in combating false information.
Taking the time to understand each patient’s beliefs and values is key to correcting misinformation. When discussing health concerns with patients, avoid technical jargon and instead use accessible language.Related: What to do when your patient doesn't trust you
Use social media strategically
With an overwhelming amount of information accessible on social media, it may be difficult for the public to discern what is trustworthy and what is not.
What is even more concerning is that misinformation is likely to be shared more widely and rapidly than the truth, with a 2018 study demonstrating that falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth. This same study showed that it took the truth around six times as long as false information to reach 1,500 people on Twitter, placing the onus on medical experts to combat misinformation.
Healthcare professionals can use their social media presence to communicate research results and provide expert medical opinions online.Related: These 6 social media tips can help boost your career
Partner with community groups
Healthcare providers can collaborate with members in the community to develop effective public health messages, accounting for the diversity in patient needs, backgrounds, and experiences.
By working with other community members, physicians can amplify their voices to bring awareness to instances of misinformation, with the hope of correcting false information.
As an example, the Joe Rogan Experience, a Spotify-exclusive podcast, which boasts 11 million listeners per episode, has been criticized repeatedly, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, for uploading highly controversial episodes that promote conspiracy theories and spread egregious misinformation.
To hold the podcast accountable and to curb the spread of misinformation, 270 doctors, physicians, and science educators wrote an open letter to Spotify asking the company to implement a misinformation policy.
In times where misinformation is spreading faster than it can be corrected, it is critical for clinicians to take an active role in shaping the information environment.
What this means for you
As trained medical experts, clinicians are well-positioned to stop the spread of misinformation, which is driven by advanced communication technologies and the uncertainty that has arisen around the COVID-19 pandemic. Providers can engage with patients to better understand their views on health, use social media strategically, and focus on information-driven community health initiatives.
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Office of the Surgeon General (OSG). Confronting Health Misinformation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Building a Healthy Information Environment. US Department of Health and Human Services; 2021.
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