Dangers behind antimaskers and antivaxxers: How to combat both


How physicians and clinicians can help

A more aggressive approach is necessary when it comes to taking down antiscience content on social media, says Hotez. Too often, misinformation and antiscience rhetoric is allowed to linger on popular sites such as Facebook and Amazon.

Wolynn agrees. On personal or business platforms, it’s crucial to ban, hide, and delete such comments as quickly as possible, he said. On public sites, purposeful disinformation should be immediately reported to the platform.

At the same time, Wolynn said it’s essential to support those who make sound, science-based comments in social media forums.

“If you see someone who is pushing accurate, evidence-based information, and they come under attack, they should be supported and defended and empowered,” Wolynn said. “Shots Heard Round the World is doing all of those things, including galvanizing and recruiting more people to help get their voices out there.”

Expanded visibility by physicians and scientists would greatly help counter the spread of antiscience sentiment, adds Hotez.

“Too often, antiscience movements are able to flourish because scientists and physicians are invisible,” he said. “They’re too focused on either clinical practices or in the case of physician scientists, on grants and papers and not enough attention to public engagement. We’re going to have to change that around. We need to hear more from scientists directly.”

To that end, Wolynn said health care professionals, including medical students and residents, need to have formal training in communications, media, and social media as part of their education – and more support from employers to engage through social media.

“That’s where the fight is,” Wolynn said. “You can be the best diagnostician, the best clinician. You can make the right diagnosis and prescribe the right medication, but if families don’t hear what you’re saying, you’re not going to be effective. If you can’t be on the platform where they’re being influenced, we’re losing the battle.”

Speaking to your mask-hesitant patients

Concentrating on those who are uncertain about masks is particularly key for physicians and public health advocates as the pandemic continues, says Arora.

“It’s important for us to focus on the mask-hesitant who often don’t get the attention they need,” she said.

She suggests bringing up the subject of masks with patients during visits, asking about mask usage, discussing rumors they’ve heard, and emphasizing why masks are important. Be a role model by wearing a mask in your community and on social media, she added.

Some patients have real concerns about not being able to breathe through masks or anxiety disorders that can be aggravated even by the thought of wearing a mask, noted Susan R. Bailey, MD, president for the American Medical Association. Bailey, an immunologist, recently counseled a patient with a deviated nasal septum in addition to a panic disorder who was worried about wearing a mask, she said. Bailey listened to the patient’s concerns, discussed his health conditions, and proposed an alternative face covering that might make him more comfortable.

“Every patient is different,” Bailey said. “It’s important for us to remember that each person who is reluctant to wear a mask has their own reasons. It’s important for us to express some empathy – to agree with them, yes, masks are hot and inconvenient – and help understand their questions, which you may be able to answer to their satisfaction. There are patients that have legitimate questions and a physician caring about how they feel, can make all the difference.”

Physicians can also get involved with the AMA’s #MaskUp campaign, an effort to normalize mask wearing and debunk myths associated with masks. The campaign includes social media materials, slogans doctors can tweet, and profile pictures they can use on social media. The campaign’s toolkit includes images, videos, and information that physicians can share with patients and the public.

Enforcing strong mask policies at your practice and ensuring all staff are modeling appropriate mask behavior is also important, adds Fincher of the ACP. The college recently issued a policy supporting mask usage in community settings.

If a patient conveys an antimask belief, Fincher suggests not directly challenging the person’s views, but listening to them and offering objective data, discussing the science behind masks, and directing them to credible sources.

“Doctors are used to this. We recommend a lot of things to patients that they don’t want to do,” Fincher said. “If a patient feels attacked, they act defensively. But if you base your explanation in more objective terms with data, numbers, and personalize the risks and benefits of a vaccine, a healthy change in behavior, or a medication, then patients are more likely to hear your concerns and do the right thing. Having a long-term relationship with a trusted physician makes all of these issues much easier to discuss and to implement the best plan for the individual patient.”

This article first appeared on Medscape.com.


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