Monday, August 15, 2022

Guest post: A call for family physicians’ role in combating misinformation

Alex McDonald, MD, FAAFP, CAQSM 

For years, physicians have been discouraged from sharing information in the social media space, and, as a result, misinformation and disinformation has flourished.  Over half of younger adults get much, if not all, of their news and information from social media. Those individuals who get their information via social media channels are often only exposed to information that further aligns with their or their social circle’s own views. This phenomenon has real world consequences when it comes to an individual’s beliefs and subsequent health decisions. The average person spends 2 hours a day on social media, yet only 15 minutes four times a year with their physicians; as such, it can be challenging for physicians to correct health misinformation.


The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust this problem into the spotlight, leaving no easy answers or solutions. Drs. Shahjahan’s and Pasquetto's AFP editorial on “Countering Medical Misinformation Online and in the Clinic” is an excellent summary of the challenge of misinformation, both in the traditional medical setting and on social media, and also provides suggestions about how to combat it. Physicians are one of the most trusted and respected professions, and we no longer can ignore or avoid correcting or addressing misinformation when we confront it in the clinic or online. We must educate ourselves and our colleagues to learn the skills and understand the importance of consistent yet respective discourse with patients. We can no longer afford to simply avoid disagreement in the exam room or online.  These conversations are not always easy and often do not occur in a single setting, but speaking up and consistently correcting misinformation by all physicians can and will have an impact. 


The Federation of State Medical Boards made a strong statement in June 2021 condemning and threatening sections against licensed medical professionals who spread misinformation, yet there has been a noticeable lack of action, even for the most egregious offenders. I believe that health professionals spreading misinformation and disinformation are the most harmful and the hardest to address. As a medical community, we must find the will to confront colleagues or other medical organizations that are touting anecdotal or non-evidenced based information. There is not always a single right answer in medicine, but there are clearly wrong answers. We must not allow others to corrupt or misrepresent science for their own benefit, and we must not allow this to propagate or the trend to continue. There is often debate within the medical literature, and often evidence-based medicine begins with anecdote or case studies, but we must not mistake early emerging information, that warrants further investigation, with evidence-based science.  


Physicians, who specialize in relationships, trust, and understanding, are best equipped to tackle this challenge. Collaboration, connection, and compassion are all are key - who better to do this work than family physicians? A strong and trusted social media account is a tool in the bag of the 21st century physician to share accurate and trusted information beyond the walls of the clinic or hospital. We must each also acknowledge our own role in inadvertently spreading misinformation. We are human and we are all susceptible to the emotions and bias on which misinformation thrives. We must educate ourselves to spot misinformation when we see it, and not just hit the “like” or “share” button, to stop misinformation in its tracks. We must not comment or engage with misinformation as this only boosts its reach; instead, ignore, block and move on.

No single person or approach is going stem the tide of pervasive misinformation and disinformation. It’s going to take all of us to educate ourselves, our colleagues, and our patients. 


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