Practicing Medicine in the Age of Misinformation with Gregory Weiss, MD

January 20, 2021
Gregory M. Weiss, MD

While social media and technology have allowed greater sharing of ideas and knowledge, they have also become a major source of misinformation. In this column, Dr. Weiss reflects on practicing during the age of misinformation.

About this time last year, the first cases of COVID-19 were cropping up here in the United States. I myself was largely unaware of any potential infectious disease implications for my patients and the greater community. I along with my large family boarded a plane for Aspen, Colorado for my yearly medical conference and our traditional ski holiday. Generally oblivious to the rising threat we flew home the second week of February 2020 to a completely different reality.

Like many other clinicians, I was skeptical that a novel coronavirus would pose a real threat since the most obligatory coronavirus, also known as the common cold, typically results in far less morbidity and mortality than the seasonal flu. In February, I was even among the group of physicians suggesting no one overreact without more information. With no excuses made, I was wrong.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has taken more lives than World War I, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War combined. Mortality aside, the cost in resources, mental and physical health, and loss of income is staggering. However, a second global pandemic that is just as insidious and highly transmissible has infected the healthy and infirm spreading even more quickly than COVID-19. Removing any distance and thwarted by no measure of personal protective equipment, the global pandemic of misinformation and conspiracy theory carried by a willing host, the social network, has provided the novel coronavirus with the richest of media to spread and thrive to spite the medical communities’ best efforts at containment.

Oddly enough, taking care of sick patients and even being exposed to a potentially deadly virus have not been the most demoralizing or worrisome problems facing me as a clinician over the last year. While being recognized as heroes for running into the burning building that is COVID care represents a pleasant change from the norm, the truth is that we run into buildings with unknown dangers every day as a matter of course.

We have taken oaths and promised through our training and licensure that we will care for patients no matter the ailment. What I wasn’t ready for was the viral ignorance, fear, and hostility directed at the scientific community, directed at me.

Social media has become a very large part of the common discourse with billions of people interacting who otherwise would not. Initially, social media was a place for me to share photos of my kids so that grandma could see them from a distance. More recently, social media has become a powerful way for physicians to communicate with their community.

With increasing responsibilities and more patients, using web-based communication allows us to reach more patients and promote better health without packing the office. However, with an increasing number of patients looking for and finding medical advice on the internet, the costs have begun to overtake the benefits.

The problem was evident before COVID-19. We have all had patients come in and inform us of their search engine diagnosis and question our advice and treatment plans as in conflict with what Aunt Betty prescribed. By and large, engaging the patient in a reassuring and informed conversation usually alleviates these trepidations and restores the physician-patient relationship, at least until recently.

Somewhere in the last half-decade, the very concept of scientific fact has come into question. Now, a free pass has been given to fringe groups once relegated to the shadows for fear of ridicule and exposure. In particular, anti-vaccination groups have been emboldened by the renewed interest in vaccines and the speed with which the COVID-19 vaccines have been developed. Clinicians for the first time became pariahs, profiteers, snake-oil salespeople—anything but healers.

I have watched on social media as friends who are nurses and physicians try to explain why the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective only to be ridiculed by a small but noticeable element citing false data and reposting misinformation from highly questionable sources. I have heard of colleagues, including established experts with the CDC, receiving threats to their lives and the lives of their families. I can tell you that after taking care of mortally ill COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit, the pain of losing those patients is amplified tenfold when people I know and see every day question the very existence of this virus and flaunt their rights to endanger everyone they encounter. This is real pain and something every clinician I know is experiencing right now.

In the midst of promoters of pseudoscience, I found many friends and acquaintances on social media asking good questions. “Is the vaccine safe?”, “Will the vaccine alter my DNA?”, “I’m young and healthy, why should I worry?” I started answering their questions. I saw my physician friends doing the same.

Unfortunately, not one single thread went without someone, often unknown to the other parties, claiming irrefutable proof that the science was wrong, that doctors are making money off of saying COVID-19 is dangerous, that vaccines are merely a control tactic by the deep state. I found myself ending my advice with, “You are all entitled to your view. I only want to provide you with the best scientific information and if it saves even one of your lives it is worth it.”

With 2021 upon us we can only have hope. As clinicians, we have to stay positive and continue to follow the science. The first rule of triage is that you cannot save everyone a fact that vexes every good clinician. What we can do is inform our patients and our communities. We can go out and join vaccination teams and support those who are working to make sure everyone who can be inoculated is.

Finally, it is important that we continue to set a good example for everyone else. Once the vaccine was available my social media feed began to be filled with friends posting pictures of themselves getting vaccinated, showing everyone that it was safe and real. In the end, the truth wins and we will get through this.