In late July, a group calling itself America's Frontline Doctors issued a video with outrageous claims, including another false plug for hydroxychloroquine as an effective COVID-19 treatment. The content was removed, but not before receiving millions of views and reviving conversation about a drug that both the FDA and the NIH have said is ineffective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Let's be clear: The Academy is in no way affiliated with this group. We are a partner in America’s Front-line Physicians -- the Group of Six -- a coalition that advocates for evidence-based care.
And the "frontline doctors"?
One is Douglas Deibele, who claimed on Twitter in March that he'd successfully treated 500 patients on a combined regimen of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin -- curious, given that Deibele is a dentist who has not practiced medicine in more than two decades, having set aside teeth in favor of acting. Look fast to see his uncredited bit parts in, for instance, Bad Samaritan. He is not the only member of the group who is no longer practicing medicine, but that didn't stop them from advising a vulnerable public against wearing masks and maintaining social distance, among other false, potentially lethal rantings.
So large numbers of Americans who are used to generally benefitting from the Internet era's immediate access to information and social networks have heard, and helped to spread, damaging misinformation. And actual frontline physicians must yet again remind their patients how much context, expertise and credibility count. Navigating a pandemic, after all, is a lot different from asking your Facebook friends for help perfecting your enchilada sauce. (For the record, I omit the cinnamon.)
I admit I'm a recovering consulter of Dr. Google myself. I used to be quite adept at web sleuthing to diagnose whatever weird constellation of symptoms was distracting me or someone I knew. But this is different: a lingering public health emergency. And with the higher stakes have come starker miscues. At the president's suggestion that household disinfectants might stave off the virus, some people began washing their food in bleach or other household cleaners, and a few imbibed directly, with dreadful results.
The AAFP, the World Health Organization and others have tried to break through this wall of nonsense with more reliable information. That work gets harder with every sham press conference called by fringe "doctors."
In fact, any bypassing of trusted information sources creates critical gaps and inconsistences in the nation's response. Witness HHS' recently instituted hospital data reporting system, which is meant to snapshot bed capacity. The CDC, the previous keeper of these numbers, was making the data publicly available to researchers, health officials and the general public in order to streamline a coordinated response. The new system is instead opaque and rife with inaccuracies and anomalies -- causing unnecessary delays and serious questions about the validity of the data.
The AAFP -- as part of America's Frontline Physicians -- told Vice President Mike Pence and HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a joint letter last month that "the growing sense of misinformation and mistrust in the U.S. will be exacerbated by policies that limit transparency and undermine public confidence in the accuracy of government information about of the true impact of this pandemic."
On the ground, on the real front lines, the Academy's engaged membership is working every day to fight falsehoods.
Family physician Chris Tramp, M.D., of Sabetha, Kan., is on Facebook, informing his patients and others about the risks of opening schools and not wearing masks, and also sharing clinical information. Other members have hosted weekly town halls where their patients can ask questions live.
Lee Norman, M.D., a family physician and the secretary of Kansas' Department of Health and Environment, has seen "a lot of anger out there" aimed at public health officials.
"I am alarmed by the politically driven and deliberate use of social media platforms to spread misinformation," he told me this week. "The question about the effectiveness of masks has been asked and answered since the 1500s."
He, too, along with his team, continues to educate, to push back against the noise. As the pandemic surges, the trustworthy voice of the family physician is more important than ever. It's been a voice of calm for patients. Now, though, we must raise the volume as we tell the truth and demand that decision-makers value the empirical over the political.
Stephanie Quinn is senior vice president of advocacy, practice advancement and policy.