“We’ve had a number of calls about ‘inaccuracies’ in your letter to the editor,” a member of my hospital’s media relations team told me. “Because of that, we’ll have to review it.” I had written a letter to the editor of our city’s major newspaper regarding immunizations and the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program’s vaccine court. I was responding to another letter alleging that the court’s mere existence meant vaccine “injuries,” as the author saw them, were very much real. As a physician, I stuck to facts in my letter. And, the hospital panel that reviewed the complaints agreed. The fact that there were “a number of calls” to my workplace was unexpected, but not surprising.
I had first interacted with the chair of the PR department of my state’s anti-vaccination organization several months prior on Twitter. As a pediatric resident, I had answered the American Academy of Pediatrics’ call for pediatricians to become more active on social media (#Tweetiatricians.) I was writing about Cleveland Clinic physician Dr. Dan Neide’s anti-vaccination views published on the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s website. I received a number of tweets in response to my own. I have to say that hers were the most respectful.
Our conversations were initially pleasant. She sent me a copy of the latest en vogue anti-vaccination book, “The Environmental and Genetic Causes of Autism.” I read it and penned a critical review of it online. While the author was upset, she stayed respectful. She treated me fairly even when the organization’s primary twitter account, run by another individual, referred to me as a “pharma robot” within ten tweets of our own separate conversation. The PR chair even politely invited me to attend the organization’s pseudo-scientific meeting where the latest anti-vaccination arguments were discussed.
It wasn’t until a series of letters to the editor that she lost her patience with me. We “have contacted … your employer to point out these fallacies and ask for your apology…” she tweeted at me. This led to that review I received. A swarm of anonymous anti-vaccine Twitter accounts pounced. They hurled false accusations, linking my employer’s Twitter account to many of these tweets. They accused me of routinely verbally abusing mothers of “vaccine-injured” children. The PR chair was no longer respectful with me, “Maybe when your attending sits you down to go over this, it will be clear.”
In keeping with a rule in which I’ve applied to my social media behavior, I no longer communicate with the PR chair of my state’s anti-vaccination organization. Mature, constructive dialogue can’t be had when one party doesn’t respect another. She, and members of her team, continue to threaten to contact my employer in attempts to have me professionally disciplined or terminated. (What they don’t know is that my employer already monitors its employees’ professional Twitter profiles.) I find this ironic in that they regularly bemoan incidents in which pro-vaccination proponents supposedly try to “silence” and “smear” anti-vaccination luminaries.
While this concerted, shady effort to quiet me might cause one to close up shop or tweet less — I’m emboldened. If the small-time Twitter account of a pediatric trainee can engross the attention of so many in the anti-vaccine community, then what if dozens of previously disengaged medical professionals got into the social media game? The host of angry tweeting tells me that my message is being heard. I encourage other health care providers to get off of the sidelines and join the conversation on social media. It’s up to actual medical experts to cut through the fog of pseudoscience and misinformation produced by these individuals. With confused, vaccine-hesitant parents caught in the crossfire, we must control the dialogue with a focus on the facts. The health of our children and communities is at stake.
Sean Gallagher is a pediatric resident. He can be reached on Twitter @TheKidKidDoc.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com