Misinformation about the COVID-19 travels faster than the virus and complicates the job of doctors who are treating those infected and responding to concerns of their other patients.
An array of myths springing up around this disease can be found on the Internet. The main themes appear to be false narratives about the origin of the virus, the size of the outbreak in the United States and in other countries, the availability of cures and treatments, and ways to prevent infection. Widespread misinformation hampers public health efforts to control the disease outbreak, confuses the public, and requires medical professionals to spend time refuting myths and re-educating patients.
A group of infectious disease experts became so alarmed by the misinformation trend they publisheddecrying the spread of false statements being circulated by some media outlets. “The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation … Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus,” wrote Charles H. Calisher, PhD, of Colorado State University, Fort Collins, and colleagues.
What can physicians do to counter misinformation?
Pulmonologist and critical care physician Cedric “Jamie” Rutland, MD, who practices in Riverside, Calif., sees misinformation about the novel coronavirus every day at home and on the job. His patients worry that everyone who gets infected will die or end up in the ICU. His neighbors ask him to pilfer surgical masks to protect them from the false notion that Chinese people in their community posed some kind of COVID-19 risk.
As he pondered how to counter myths with facts, Dr. Rutland turned to an unusual resource: His 7-year-old daughter Amelia. He explained to her how COVID-19 works and found that she could easily understand the basics. Now, Dr. Rutland draws upon the lessons from chats with his daughter as he explains COVID-19 to his patient audience on his YouTube channel “.” Simplicity, but not too much simplicity, is key, he said. Dr. Rutland uses a visual aid – a rough drawing of a virus – and shows how inflammation and antibodies enter the picture after infection. “I just teach them that if you’re a healthy person, this is how the body works, and this is what the immune system will do,” he said. “For the most part, you can calm people down when you make time for education.”
What are best practices? In a series of interviews, specialists emphasized the importance of fact-finding, wide-ranging communication, and – perhaps most difficult of all – humility.
Dr. Rutland emphasizes thoughtful communication based on facts and humility when communicating to patients about this potential health risk. “A lot of people finish medical school and think, ‘Everyone should trust me because I’m the pulmonologist or the GI doc.’ That’s not how it works. You still have to earn people’s trust,” he said.