There is not one plague, but two, we are simultaneously fighting at this time:
The COVID-19 pandemic. And the infodemic.
This is going to be a two-part post. The first describes the dangers of the current COVID-19 infodemic. And the second, shared tomorrow, explains why trusting science is the only cure.
So on to the first part:
The spread of misinformation and disinformation has reached dangerous levels.
Misinformation occurs when a person is trying to be helpful, but shares false content without realizing it is false or misleading. Many times, the sharing of misinformation is driven by socio-psychological factors, where people want to feel like they "belong" to a particular group, like flat-earthers.
Disinformation is content that is intentionally false and designed to cause harm. Much of disinformation is spread by those who are misinformed. And as a result, false and misleading information gets propagated by those who do not understand or are unable to critically analyze and question the content received prior to "sharing" it with someone else.
The line demarcating the difference between misinformation and disinformation - intent - can be blurred.
There was already a lot of arm-chair doctoring going on in this world, and this pandemic has caused that to increase exponentially. Most are aware of the worst public offenders in this regard.
As healthcare providers, it is our role to educate the public, to help them become more informed. I think the best way to do so is to offer them tools to analyze the information they receive more critically and serve as a stop-gap for spread themselves.
In my opinion, the best way to get people to trust science is to teach them how to think like a scientist first. You know, the whole teach-a-man-to-fish kinda deal.
But unfortunately, even healthcare providers are contributing to the infodemic.
And as the source of this information, this can be the most damaging. The following are a few of the most common videos I have been asked about, so I will use them as examples.
The video by the ER doc in NYC is very well-known by most. It went viral by comparing COVID-19 to altitude sickness, but this was mis or disinformation depending on how you view his intent: did he truly believe he had the answer to treating COVID-19 in the ICU or did he realize it may not be true but decided to put it out there anyway because of his ego?
Assuming misinformation, belief and truth are completely different, and belief masquerading as truth is dangerous in this situation. His one-size-fits-all explanation does not fit the reality of an exceptionally complex disease that does not even come close to fitting any one particular disease model. Treatment for COVID-19 has continued to evolve as the medical community shares information with one another as our knowledge of the disease, and the disease process itself, grows.
THIS is how you approach safe and effectual change in the scientific community. Collaboration, not accusation or improvisation.
A video of an NP speaking on behalf of her horrified travel nurse colleague in NYC has gone viral too, but I would categorize it as misinformation as it seems clear her intent is to warn families about the dangers of this particular hospital. She described particular situations that anyone who is not on the front-line could view as malpractice if you believed her explanations. But many of the situations described in her video are being done all over the city for good reason because the goal is to not only avoid killing our patients, but you know, also to avoid KILLING OUR STAFF.
Stating everything done at this hospital was done with the intent to harm or kill patients is a HUGE accusation, one that is UNLIKELY to fit reality even in the worst hospitals in the city. But if these horrors are in fact occurring for the reasons described, then by all means call the hospital out.
But this is the biggest problem: she NEVER mentions the hospital she is speaking about by name.
I recognize her reasons for not doing so. But by not accusing the potential perpetrator directly, she created suspicion against ALL hospitals in NYC, and possibly across the country. Because if it can happen here, then it could happen anywhere, right?
There is already so much distrust towards hospitals and healthcare in general, and the last thing needed is to create more distrust during such a trying time. Well-intentioned actions can have unintended consequences.
And do not even get me started on Dr. Rashid Buttar. Disinformation incarnate.
These are just a few examples of those in our own field who are sabotaging our efforts to provide the best care for our patients, whether or not that is their intention. As healthcare professionals, we find ourselves in a very unique, powerful, and influential role in the middle of this pandemic.
Dr. Fauci admirably serves as a role-model to all of us in that regard, and his poise in the face of threats both from inside and outside the White House is astounding. He understands the power he and the rest of the medical community holds in overcoming both this pandemic AND infodemic, as it is essential to overcome both to save the most lives possible.
Dr. Fauci KNOWS any statement he makes must be the following:
1. Clear. 2. Unbiased. 3. ZERO room for interpretation.
Heck, I would not be surprised if he is a Spider-Man fan, in addition to a Brad Pitt fan.
Because he embodies what Uncle Ben once told Peter:
"With great power comes great responsibility."