March 26, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
With the coronavirus dominating the news, it is even more essential that physicians speak up and provide evidence-based information in order to quell people’s fears and lead the way in guiding the development of a measured response to a global public health crisis.
As more companies encourage their employees to work from home with a situation that is evolving rapidly, many are turning to the internet to find real-time information about the pandemic. And physicians are using their voices to provide guidance.
Misinformation in medicine has been present for as long as medicine has existed. However, with the internet and social media, celebrities and average citizens alike have the ability to spread misinformation globally.
The rise of the medical media pundit has led to dangerous outcomes and can be detrimental to public health, especially in times when the accuracy of disseminated information can mean the difference between life and death. Thus, it is more important than ever that physicians use social media and other digital platforms to reach Americans online.
With misinformation coming from the highest office in the land, the public must have resources that are reputable and easily accessible. For this reason, I strongly encourage my physician colleagues to use the incredible power of the digital space to communicate information to the public, especially in these challenging and sometimes confusing times.
As a clinician, I too have turned to the internet to better understand the coronavirus pandemic and have found it challenging to sift through and find the facts. As an oncologist, a mother, and a daughter, I often rely on the expertise of my colleagues to guide my conversations and answer questions of others who ask me about topics that I am not as well-versed in.
Along with reputable sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, medical journals such as the Lancet, JAMA and the New England Journal of Medicine, I also rely on the explanations shared by experts in the field. This is yet another reason why it is essential physicians use our platforms to continue to disseminate factual information.
For those not working in the health care space, here are some tips on how to sift through the information and determine if it is factually accurate:
— Check the expertise of the person providing the information. There are many claiming to be “experts,” but they do not have the expertise in the area. For example, if they claim to be a physician, do they have an M.D., D.O. or equivalent title? There are some who tout themselves as medical physicians and experts online but may not have the education or degree to back it up. Make sure the person is who they say they are.
— It is important to not only look at the backgrounds of those who are sharing information but also assess if they present evidence-based, factual information. Do they support their claims with data, studies or science? Oftentimes, there will be links to scientific publications. If you don’t know if the information is accurate or factual, ask someone who you know is an expert. Social media has made it much easier to ask experts questions by tagging them in a post and even sending a direct message.
— See what other types of articles they have written or been quoted in. Were they accurate and factual? Do they have a track record of writing on similar topics? If you aren’t sure how to assess their level of expertise, reach out to reputable sources in the field.
— When looking at a society’s website, check the source and make sure it is a trustworthy organization. The CDC, Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health will post up-to-date factual information based in science, evidence and expertise. Do not be swayed by sites that paint a rosy picture yet do not have facts to back up their claims.
— Be cautious of those trying to sell products. Many “get well quick,” “miracle solutions” and “natural cures” are being sold to line the pocket of the individual selling the product. Identify if the person posting has an angle or may have personal gain.
— Compare what you are reading with other sources and reports. Make sure they seem consistent.
There are some physicians who use their platform to spread self-serving misinformation for personal gain, as well, so it can be a challenge for an individual who is not in health care to always be sure of the validity of the source. In these cases, it is even more important to see if other experts agree and have shared similar information and facts.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it best at a recent press conference regarding the coronavirus pandemic: “We need facts, not fear. We need science, not rumors. We need solidarity, not stigma.” The health care community must band together and continue to educate and disseminate information to help the public understand a constantly evolving and potentially overwhelming situation.
It is the responsibility of those with the experience, science and education to inform the public by whatever means necessary. And with social distancing an essential component of controlling this pandemic, social media and other digital platforms are the best way to reach the largest audience efficiently and effectively.
Mister Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.’” Physicians and other health care workers are on the frontlines, putting themselves in harm’s way day in and day out to try and control this pandemic and take care of your family and friends. They are using their digital platforms and voices to get important information out to the public that is scary, complicated and often unclear.
Look for the helpers. They are all around you, and they are using their voices to give you the knowledge you need to help navigate a scary moment in our history.
Shikha Jain, M.D., is a board-certified hematology and oncology physician and the physician director of media relations for the Rush University Cancer Center, and she was named one of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Emerging Leaders in 2019 and is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project and a Tedx speaker.
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