With the recent attention given to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the cases diagnosed in the United States, one of the main ways in which the public is being informed is through social media. Every single day on Facebook, I see at least one story posted about the Ebola epidemic and its potential impact on the U.S. public and there are two things that strike me: the variation of quality of the stories, and the comments made by people which likely reflect concerns held by the public.
For the most part, many of the stories about the Ebola epidemic are reliable and provide up-to-date information about the state of the epidemic in Africa and the status of diagnosed U.S. cases. The public is getting a better sense of the actions that U.S. officials are taking in order to prevent the spread of Ebola among the American public. On the surface, it should look as if these stories should bring some sense of calm to people who are worried about whether they or a loved one may be impacted by the virus.
However, once in a while, I see a story come through that raises concern about how accurately people are presenting the situation, and whether personal views as opposed to objective data are impacting their presentation of the Ebola virus. The problem is that sometimes it is hard for people to tell the difference in terms of quality among stories they see, and taking all of the stories collectively can influence their feelings about Ebola and more importantly, whether they see themselves as potentially at risk. Reading the comments after these stories are posted gives a better insight about public opinion.
The trend I see in public comments posted is that either people are very concerned about their chances of catching Ebola or people are telling others not to worry so much. Questions that come through the comments section can give a great idea to practitioners about how to address the concerns of the public, but they can also give insight in terms of potential misinformation that the public may have about the state of the epidemic and their risk of contracting the virus. With the fact that more people are coming to the emergency room out of concern for Ebola after developing viral symptoms, this is an opportunity for doctors to allay fears of the public and also to inform them about how low their risk of contracting the virus at this point. The challenge is engaging the other sources of media that people read to ensure that accurate information is being given.
Ultimately, doctors have an opportunity to shape the way that information about Ebola is being presented to the public, but we first need to be aware of the stories that people are reading. There are certain medical organizations that can deliver to our inboxes a summary of media coverage from the day before about Ebola so we can be informed about the general topic that was presented to the public. Also, with a younger generation of doctors growing, more doctors have some link to social media (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, etc.); we could start to post more stories or official guidelines from reputable sources about Ebola to our personal pages that people could read to stay informed. Potentially we could respond to comments from friends in a way that could allay fears about Ebola but if this is done, professional etiquette should guide our responses.
We have an opportunity to use digital media in a way to help shape the current conversation about Ebola. In an era where social media can allow anybody to shape any type of conversation, perhaps there is more of a responsibility on us to use that media to inform the general public about medical matters. Whether we like it or not, social media is not going away anytime soon.
Chiduzie Madubata is an internal medicine physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com