It’s simple: we need more physicians in media and politics. COVID-19 has proven to be a crash course in the practical application of microbiological, pathophysiological, clinical, statistical, and ethical principles. As a newly graduated MD preparing to enter residency, I spend my mornings filtering through recent journal correspondence, case reports, observational studies, and randomized control trials in order to form and refine a professional opinion on this dynamic and challenging subject. I ask myself, “Is this cohort comparable to my community?” “How many and which of my future patients would benefit from this information?” and “What are the risks and unintended consequences associated with this intervention?” However, I soon discovered the equally, if not more, important question: “How can I share this information with the public in a way that they will believe?”
As physicians, we know where to find reliable medical information. We are accustomed to distilling convoluted research and clinical guidelines into succinct patient recommendations. Although we often struggle for time, we acknowledge the importance of investing it to discuss treatment options, alternatives, and weighing risks/benefits. As you can imagine, watching popular news network coverage is routinely a disheartening part of my day. The objective academic information that I regularly appraise is often not reflected in mainstream media and broadcasted political conversations.
It troubles me to witness the American people given only an inch of what is known, unknown, and still under investigation yet yards of political spin on any given day regarding this pandemic. For example, the CDC received 363,500,000 site visits, NIH 195,500,000, and coronavirus.gov 3,200,000 in March of 2020. In comparison, CNN pulled in 931,500,000 site visits, Fox News 412,500,000, and MSNBC 30,200,000 during the same month. Even if you only attribute half of this traffic to coronavirus-related content, that leaves a combined 687,100,000 visits for CNN, Fox, and MSNBC.
As a new physician, it concerns me that the American people, our current public health patient, are getting the “Googled” version of this pandemic. What is the side effect of this? The efficacy of hydroxychloroquine has been reduced to a conversation about who is taking it and their political affiliation. The decision to close the economy and plans to reopen it has seen the rise of two predominant factions: The, “Open right now-ers,” and the, “Stay closed-ers.”A review of CNN and Fox News’ regular contributor profiles indicate that only five of a total of 541 were physicians. My intention is not to disparage these networks or their viewers, but rather suggest that most Americans are not getting their medical information directly from experts and public health officials but instead through third party and often partisan filters. And I haven’t even touched upon social media.
This pandemic has revealed many flaws in our institutions and systems including, but not limited to, education, health care, and the economy. For physicians, it has revealed that while our judgment and perspective are still sought and respected at large, our collective public voice is weak. Physicians continue to struggle to keep pace with growing sources of misinformation. We are encouraged by those in our private and professional lives to be neutral in the public sphere. We are encouraged to refrain from participating on social media and, especially during a pandemic, refrain from communicating with the media unless pre-approved by our institutions. We are continuously denied the tools to make our case known to the public and continue to promulgate the status quo that patient education is delivered via one-on-one encounters, bland government web resources, and waiting room pamphlets.
Physicians are trained to ask questions, examine potential causes, investigate treatments, and weigh the risks and benefits of intervention. Our entrenchment in the delicate intricacies of our patients’ lives give us unique insight into the human condition. A 2019 Gallup poll reported that 65 percent of Americans believe physicians have “high” or “very high” honesty and ethical standards. This is a stark contrast to the 12-13 percent for members of Congress. Another 2019 Gallup Poll revealed that health care topped the list of important 2020 election issues with 81 percent of Americans rating it “very” and “extremely important.” Physicians provide a compelling case for public office, not only because they are educated and trusted professionals, but also because they have a great deal of promise from an electability standpoint.
Thinking forward, I believe we need to introduce medical students to professional opportunities outside of direct medical care and inspire them to realize the potential a medical degree affords them. We should consider exposing our students to medical journalism and physicians in politics. We need to encourage medical students to contribute to the public discussion as shepherds of knowledge through the responsible and professional use of social media platforms in their future careers. Furthermore, we need to instruct them not only how to write patient notes, but also how to write letters to their elected officials and editorials, translating complex medical topics into content for public consumption. We need to promote the development of their voices beyond the roles of medical consultants and expert witnesses so that they may see themselves as powerful agents of change through authorship, policymaking, and enacting meaningful legislation. We need this not only for ourselves, but to heal a divided America wrought with misinformation and partisan agendas; to provide Americans with what they desperately need during this crisis and in the future: clarity, honesty, and trust in the discussion.
James Mattson is an internal medicine resident.
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