Why should doctors become involved in social media? I asked myself this same question a few years ago. My answer was, “I don’t know.” I saw no redeeming reason to get involved with social media as a physician. At the time, I just saw it as a social platform for posting cute family photos, funny pet videos, jokes, inspirational quotes, and links to entertaining stories. Sure, a lot of that still exists. But, as I have explored the world of social media more, I have seen a side of it that requires more attention from the medical community.
Social media has not only become a source of entertainment, but also a place where many individuals obtain their information about world affairs, politics, sports, local news, and many other areas, including health, medicine, and science. Information about many complex topics is easily accessible and often engineered to be consumed by the lay public on numerous social media platforms. However, much of this information is not filtered, regulated, peer-reviewed, or verified. Anyone can state their opinion about anything with authority, even if they are not an authority on the subject.
Much of this unverified information has found its way into our health, medicine, and science conversations. This has been no more evident than in our recent 2-year battle with the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization so aptly termed the deluge of misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic as a parallel infodemic. They mentioned that, “If it is not managed accordingly, an infodemic can have direct negative impacts on the health of populations and the public health response by undermining the trust in science and interventions.” The World Health Organization statement refers to the COVID-19 pandemic and goes on to say, “Practicing information hygiene, just as we are practicing hand and cough hygiene, is thus becoming vital to prevent the spread of the virus.” These two statements resonated with me because they proved to be true.
As a physician who has been treating children throughout the pandemic, these two statements hit home. The misinformation and disinformation that I have encountered as a health care provider during this pandemic have been beyond compare to what I have ever seen in the past. As a pediatric intensivist, my interest in misinformation initially stemmed from the entertainment industry portraying cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) as a panacea for the treatment of cardiac arrests. One hallmark article examined the outcomes of CPR on television and concluded that, “The survival rates in our study are significantly higher than the most optimistic survival rates in the medical literature, and the portrayal of CPR on television may lead the viewing public to have an unrealistic impression of CPR and its chances for success.” I would not uncommonly have to discuss the reality of CPR with families during end-of-life discussions or advanced directives to explain that it was not nearly as successful as it is portrayed on television, so these families would have a realistic understanding of what we were able to do for their child. However, these discussions would pale compared to the discourses that I witnessed during the pandemic over science, medicine, and public health. I don’t believe that anyone has not been directly affected, in some way or another, by the infodemic during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been especially true for the medical community, where they have witnessed firsthand how medical misinformation and disinformation have adversely affected individual and public health over the last two years.
Traditionally, most physicians have stayed out of the social media arena of public discourse over health, medicine, and science. Maybe I am projecting, but I feel that some of the reasons why physicians have shied away from public dialogues on social media may have been that they feel that it is more self-serving (to gain fame or fortune), it is unprofessional, it is beneath their expertise to discuss such issues in public, it is too intimidating to be foisted into public dialogue about these subjects, or they just don’t have a particular interest or capacity for public speaking or discussions on social media. Whatever the reason may be, physicians traditionally have appeared to be above these public engagements and would stay in their lane to treat patients, study, and research in their own medical settings. However, I believe that this mentality needs to change.
Physicians are uniquely suited to serve the public and professionally benefit from social media. Physicians should serve the public and educate on social media because they have the training, knowledge, and clinical experience to truthfully provide the necessary information to the public. A systematic review article on the prevalence of health misinformation on social media found posts with misinformation reaching as high as 87 percent in some studies. So, there is a need for professionals with accurate information to counter the deluge of misinformation and disinformation permeating social media. From a professional standpoint, social media is exceptionally positioned to strengthen the medical community and benefit one professionally. Connecting with other medical professionals and sharing information is a powerful tool. Social media has enabled physicians and other medical personnel to connect in forums more frequently and efficiently than by attending prestigious annual medical conferences. Also, the sharing of ideas and research is exponentially more rapid than the collaboration facilitated by attending medical conferences, reading individual journals, or engaging in journal clubs to assess the current literature. One example of this is how the pediatric critical care community was able to benefit from Twitter for “real-time information sharing and collaboration among the international pediatric critical care community during the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic.” The most recent and accurate information about the rapidly progressing pandemic was literally at physicians’ fingertips via social media by connecting with other physicians across the globe.
So, again, I ask myself, “Why should doctors become involved in social media?” Instead of answering, “I don’t know,” I say, “Why not?” Social media is an evolution of our community gathering, town hall, information distribution, and communication setting. If physicians don’t evolve as well and show a presence on social media to educate and impart their knowledge about health, medicine, and science to the public, other less-qualified, non-medical individuals will. If that happens, the health of our society will be worse off for it. In the end, doctors must be a part of the social media ecosystem, and it should be considered an obligation and not an option in this day and age.
David Epstein is a pediatrician.
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