Beware of pseudoscience: The desperate need for physicians on social media


The power of social media is clearly evident in cases such as the Russian influence on our election and Mark Zuckerberg‘s realization of the need for transparency on his powerful platform of Facebook. However, maybe not so evident, is the transformative power of social media on health care trends and misinformation.

A popular new term for the misinformation regarding medical topics has arisen: pseudoscience. It has run rampant on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Why does this matter? Like it or not, social media and the internet is the way Americans are receiving information regarding important medical choices in their lives. They can find an answer to a question regarding a health concern in less than five seconds by searching Facebook or google about the HPV vaccine.  If physicians aren’t writing about these topics, someone else will.

As a board-certified OB/GYN, I was curious to see what patients actually find out when they are searching for the HPV vaccine. I did a search to see what I (and they) might find. I was disgusted, angry and even saddened by what I found. There was story after story about the HPV vaccine that was neither medically correct, verified, or quoted from a reputable source. Sensationalized stories floated to the top of search engines results, and the boring, true, evidenced-based information was buried under the hyperbole.

Tucked away and surrounded by like-minded individuals during my medical training and residency, I was blissfully unaware of the public’s perception of the HPV vaccine or frankly any medical treatment recommendations regardless of specialty. I ignorantly assumed most people go to their physician first for medical information. I’ll be honest: I didn’t often check Facebook or Twitter as I was consumed by medical practice.

In addition, there are very strict rules placed upon physicians by their employers and hospitals where they work. Most physicians stay away from any social media outlets out of fear of lawsuit or concern for their employer seeking retribution for voicing opinions that they do not endorse. This dated outlook must change so that we can connect with patients in a more modern way.

Unfortunately, right now we are left with massive amounts of misinformation on the Internet about medical issues without a physician perspective.  The barriers have been 1) lack of time for physicians encompassed by patient care and clinical duties having little time for other endeavors 2) the above mentioned legal or employment constraints.

How do we rectify this? Academic institutions need to be vocal on places like Facebook and Twitter where patients are looking for information. We need to allow doctors to speak their minds (perhaps also with a legal clause that their views are their own and not linked to their employers/hospital), but they need a voice nonetheless.

One on one patient counseling is, of course, important and necessary in some cases. However, imagine how many people you could reach by writing an article about the HPV vaccine from the physician’s point of view. We as physicians need to be better about distilling this information to our patients. This is our responsibility. Of course, the public is going to be drawn more to stories of human interest regarding vaccines and latest trends instead of dry, data-heavy medical journals. Articles with only complicated statistics, and unnecessarily ostentatious medical jargon are boring for even those of us who love science and statistics.

We need to tell our stories, of course in a HIPAA compliant way, but tell them in a way people will want to listen or read them.

So, Mark Zuckerberg and wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, I’m reaching out to you. Please lead the way again with social media. Help our patients to understand the lack of veracity behind the viral post they are reading that correlates the HPV vaccine to the death of a young girl without any established causative factors. Please stop the propagation of incorrect medical facts and pseudoscience that make it so hard to gain patient’s trust. To the hospital CEOs, let your physicians have a voice. Stop threatening with retaliation for their presence on social media outlets. This is an under-utilized and impactful way for your physicians to make a difference and be heard.

Valerie A. Jones is a obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at OB Doctor Mom.

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