A 4-year-old boy in Colorado recently died of the flu after posters in an anti-vaccine Facebook group encouraged his mother to try natural remedies instead of the antiviral medication he was prescribed.
We are not just at the height of a powerful anti-vaccination campaign. Our health care messages must also compete for patients' attention with climate deniers and Goop Lab followers. We are besieged by policy that promotes factual relativism, like a bill that passed the Ohio House of Representatives in November that opponents say would allow students to answer scientific questions incorrectly if the actual, correct answer collides with their religious beliefs. We are under the rule of an administration that replaces scientific committees with industry representatives. And we are witnessing attempts to reduce funding for research and science programs.
We are in the middle of a larger anti-science movement, fueled by misinformation and lack of public trust in credible sources. It's a disheartening paradox to practice medicine in a time when we are surrounded by vast amounts of knowledge, and yet, as a society, we seem to know so much less than we should.
Forget the days of Dr. Google. Karen on Facebook has taken over the throne as the most trusted name in medicine for some people, and she is sharing posts about using lavender essential oils to "cure" your patient's diabetes. She is the new pseudoscience and snake oil sales(wo)man.
Social media giants, like Facebook, and elected officials have vowed to launch a fight against disinformation campaigns. But why should we trust Facebook algorithms or politicians?
There is a persistent erosion of trust in not just the expertise of doctors, but respect for the evidence of medicine. Instead, celebrity voices or posts in a Facebook group seem to hold more clout than a physician who has undergone thousands of hours of training in critical thinking.
How did we get here?
Well, to be fair, the scientific community is partly to blame. Medical schools actually used to discourage physicians from speaking to journalists or engaging in public discourse. And although most medical schools don't hold those outdated views today, they also don't provide education on effective public communication; most communication curriculum is focused on individual patients and colleagues.
In addition, much has been written about the wellness industry's growth as a result of vulnerable populations (women, people of color, etc.) being dismissed or marginalized by the medical community.
There is also a larger public mistrust of corporate organizations such as pharmaceutical companies, which often fund research studies. The imprecision and complexity of science also leaves a lot of leeway for interpretation. As a result, the intensity of people's beliefs expressed on social media has replaced previously indisputable facts.
As physicians, the only way to fight misinformation is by providing credible facts in every public sphere where patients get information. It's something I've embraced in my career, as awkward as it sometimes may feel. I blog. I regularly tweet. I speak not only to my peers at medical conferences, but I also speak at events for the general public ranging from travel festivals to the local news. I've done countless interviews with Seventeen. And I've filmed patient-focused videos for Buzzfeed and the Try Guys. These platforms have allowed me to reach millions of patients on topics ranging from the importance of primary care to managing acid reflux.
These opportunities arose from being a family physician who is accessible on Twitter, LinkedIn and other platforms where editors, reporters and producers are frequently looking for reliable sources. In addition to providing accurate information, by speaking out as a family physician, I'm able to educate the public on our wide scope of practice. Although the general public has often associated issues such as STIs or periods with OB/Gyns, Buzzfeed opted to use me as their women's health expert.
It's important to help the public understand the scope of family medicine, which is one reason I'm one of a handful of AAFP members working with the Academy and Edelman, a communications marketing agency, on a consumer public relations project that has given me more opportunities to provide evidence-based health information.
Of course, there are bound to be repercussions from speaking to the public on potentially controversial topics. A doctor recently posted accurate vaccine information on TikTok and was bombarded by anti-vaxxers with death threats and negative online reviews. She was quickly defended by Shots Heard Round the World, a rapid-response cavalry started by a pediatrician that's dedicated to protecting the social media pages of clinicians who are attacked by anti-vaxxers.
There are other pitfalls. Being part of a public platform doesn't carry the prestige of publication in an academic journal or speaking at a medical conference. And it can be time-consuming, with little or no compensation. But to reclaim the role of trusted advisors, physicians need to join the public discourse.
The general public can speak out without responsibility to others, professional accountability or deep understanding. Physicians, on the other hand, are held to accurate statements and probabilities of outcomes; we provide health information in the context of both individual and population health, supported by hierarchies of evidence. We didn't become doctors to fight in the war on science, but it's time to understand there are real casualties.
Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., is a board-certified family physician in Phoenix. You can follow her on Twitter @NatashaBhuyan.
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