September 2, 2021, 12:45 p.m. — It’s no secret that we’re experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis with COVID-19.
We’re also experiencing a second and possibly more dangerous public health pandemic that has, in part, resulted in and/or exacerbated the first: the spread of health misinformation, or an infodemic, as the World Health Organization calls it. The U.S. surgeon general even recently issued an advisory about the urgent health threat posed by misinformation.
Misinformation and disinformation have taken over social media, and as the adage goes, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can get out the front door.”
Today, that saying — whatever version you prefer — has never been more true. Misinformation can be as simple as someone sharing information they didn’t realize was false, whereas disinformation is more nefarious and intentionally seeks to mislead people.
Two-thirds of young adults get their news and information primarily from social media. This landscape is littered with misinformation and, more dangerous, disinformation. The average patient spends a brief time with their primary care clinician a handful of times a year, but between two and three hours a day on social media. How are we supposed to compete with that?
For years, family physicians and other trusted health messengers have been discouraged from speaking out on social media for fear of legal, licensure or employer repercussions. As a result, there is a significant health information void on social media and in other areas where large numbers of people communicate and share ideas. Not surprisingly, that void has been filled with questionable (if not outright false) health advice, misinformation and disinformation. We have a duty to our patients and our communities to reclaim the prevailing health narrative in this nation, not just for the COVID-19 pandemic, but for whatever the next public health crisis will be.
The COVID-19 pandemic is frightening. It has killed millions of people and impacted the lives of tens of millions of people worldwide, but this is due at least in part to the infodemic.
The truly frightening part is that the infodemic has the potential to harm and impact many more millions, or even billions, of people in the future if we do not stop it now.
So what can we do? What can you do?
First, we must ask people about their COVID vaccination status and proactively address their questions, not only in the clinic and the hospital, but far beyond the four walls of our offices and traditional health care settings. We need to share accurate and trusted information on social media to counter the misinformation and disinformation.
Next, I ask you to consider joining the #ThisIsOurShot campaign. This is a viral, grassroots digital and social campaign founded by myself; Atul Nakhasi, M.D.; and Hussain Lalani, M.D., M.P.H. Its mission is to elevate the voice of health care heroes online and in person to build trust in the COVID vaccines.
We know that a physician is the most trusted messenger when it comes to COVID vaccine information.
This campaign is not about any individual physician, though, but about all family physicians and health care professionals. The #ThisIsOurShot campaign has engaged more than 25,000 trusted health care messengers and trained over 200 vaccine advocates over the last eight months, reaching more than 700 million views of accurate vaccine content across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok to help unvaccinated people decide that yes, they will get the vaccine.
Third, we must speak out not only on social media, but wherever there are patients with questions. We need to share knowledge and information about vaccines with our friends, neighbors and social groups, and at places of worship and in our schools. In whatever networks and communities we are a part of, we have a responsibility to inform people. We cannot simply assume patients will seek out our expert opinion when it comes to vaccines or their health. We must speak up and speak out.
Finally, I implore you to use the AAFP’s own numerous vaccine resources. Whether it’s the Academy’s Immunizations & Vaccines webpage, the COVID-19 Vaccine webpage, or the Immunizations and Vaccines pages available on familydoctor.org, the AAFP is ready to help you and your patients get the information they need.
It’s not too late — but we have to act now. We had an opportunity to put an end to this pandemic, but misinformation and disinformation have sidetracked the advances we made. We can’t let that happen again. We must speak up, speak out, and work together. It’s the best chance we have for putting an end to COVID once and for all.
Alex McDonald, M.D., C.A.Q.S.M., is a practicing family physician at Kaiser Permanente Fontana Medical Center, Fontana, Calif.