Is there a role for physician activism on Facebook?

I use Facebook. I’ll just start right out by saying it. But sometimes I wish I could stop. While I do share meaningful conversation and get caught up on how my friends and their families are doing, I also spend a great deal of my time trying not to see things. While others might be able to scroll right past that friend’s post about vaccines causing autism, or about treating their child with unsafe homeopathic treatments, or about how flu shots cause the flu and kill more people than they save, doctors cannot. We read, then re-read their posts, our blood begins to boil, and we can never really look at that person the same way again. Then we ask ourselves, do I really want to start this conversation? Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t.

I know that I have spent time on Facebook trying to explain that the article someone posted is actually not scientifically even plausible, or that the study linking autism to vaccines was debunked years ago, or that giving your infant homeopathic silver is not, in fact, safer than giving them Tylenol. Other times, I have laid awake at night worrying that maybe I should have said something when I didn’t to an equally disturbing post.

As a physician, it is difficult to draw the line on Facebook between providing advice based on years of education and training, and just letting people remain ignorant, especially when you see that others are agreeing, sharing, and spreading harmful or even dangerous information. When is it our responsibility to speak up? When can we just let things slide? Is there such a thing as being a bystander physician in social media?

These are questions I continue to struggle with. I have found myself regretting decisions both to speak up and to not speak up in these types of situations, especially when health-related decisions about children are involved. What I do know is that it causes me some undue stress, and I’m sure it must do so for other physicians as well. People feel comfortable posting things and saying things online that would generally be thought of as socially unacceptable in person. Since people are going to continue to be relatively uninhibited in posting about their political, social, and medical views on Facebook, is there a role for physician activism in this media?

Andrea Paul is chief medical officer, Boardvitals.com.

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  • John C. Key MD

    I’m not sure Facebook is the ideal place for serious posts, much less serious discussion. Any diatribe–or even negative comments–about a medical untruth or claim is not likely to be noiticed by most Facebook readers. It after all is a “social” media, not a scientific one. (Full DIsclosure: that doesn’t mean I don’t do it, in fact I am on Facebook a lot).

    If you want a serious discussion you are a lot better off posting and commenting on sites such as Kevinmd.com, Disqus, or other sites that have a greater claim to serious discussion. Facebook may be fun to read but it is not the place for serious talk.

  • SJ

    I’m a nursing student, not a doctor but I too share your struggles. It is hard to just ignore some of the blatant lies and untruths that are being constantly shared around on social media. This is how I try to tackle this issue without getting too involved and trying to “correct” every piece of misinformation shared on Facebook (a battle that can never be won). In the comments under my friends’ questionable “shares” I try to post links to plain language reviews of scientific papers, articles from science news websites, or myth-busting type material that I find online. This helps me to alleviate the guilt and/or stress that I feel when I don’t say anything, and allows my friends and family to read the material on their own. In this way they can hopefully gain a bit of perspective without me wasting my time, giving them a lecture, or making everyone feel uncomfortable (then they don’t just have to take my word for things either). My hope is that in doing this they will also be exposed to websites and news from more credible sources, and that they might be more likely to use these sites again for research the next time they read about the latest “miracle detox”, home remedy, or vaccine controversy.

    On a lighter note, I thought I would share this comic I read once that gave ME some perspective: http://xkcd.com/386/

  • Dan

    I feel like there are certain situations where someone is doing harm to the general community – such as suggesting antibiotics for a flu for everyone. In those instances, I feel a need to step in.

  • Sara Stein MD

    Facebook is a party, not a medical meeting. There are all kinds of conversations at cocktail parties, family gatherings, school reunions, after work get-togethers that are inaccurate and misleading. If you want to start a scene at a party, go ahead, but I prefer to just ignore, and move to the next conversation or leave early. If someone asks me something specific, I usually answer privately (not giving medical advice), on the premise that they might someday come to see me professionally.