If a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and nobody shows up to use it, did the vaccine ever truly exist?
Vaccines are among the most impactful medical technologies developed in human history. The process of injecting a weakened strain of pathogen to confer immunity has saved millions from deadly illness. Those unable or unwilling to receive vaccines have also benefited immensely from their widespread use via “herd immunity” as they are exposed to fewer contagious individuals in their environment. In recent times however, we’ve seen a resurgence in vaccine-preventable diseases in parts of the world where they had been all but erased, attributed to low vaccine coverage.
En masse, people are unconvinced of the safety and importance of vaccination. A recent survey indicates that more than a quarter of Canadians oppose or are hesitant about being vaccinated. Convincing people to engage in inconvenient and often unpleasurable behaviour to improve health is by no means a new challenge for public health advocates but the burden of proving posted information is accurate or credible has been amplified in the Information Age. The Internet is the first source many rely on for health information and social media platforms are increasingly where health advice is shared between organizations, friends and family.
Although a promising tool for widely distributing up-to-date health information, social media platforms are also saturated with misinformation, rumours and fake news. Anti-vaccine rhetoric is among the most concerning examples, but others include unproven cancer treatments, evidence-free wellness behaviours and most recently falsities pertaining to the nature and treatment of the COVID-19 virus. Left unchallenged, these messages spread much like viruses. They are transmitted from person to person until reaching epidemic proportions, steadily undermining public trust in health professionals and institutions. We need people on the frontlines of misinformation to combat this danger to public health and the online presence of healthcare professionals may be our greatest weapon to do so.
The public recognizes that the title of “doctor” is not earned lightly. Physicians remain the most trusted source of health information among Canadians. With this great social currency comes great responsibility; these trusted voices are needed to shift the dialogue around health misinformation at the source and prevent its proliferation. Debunking misinformation shared on social media is worth the effort when done correctly. Health communication literature has practical tips to help physicians engage effectively.
1- Use scientific explanations to point out inaccuracies in statements or sources. By posting misinformation, the sharer has indicated interest in the topic and as such may be willing to invest the cognitive effort to process relatively in-depth explanations. Share your medical knowledge using simplified metaphors and casual terminology and be clear as to why this challenges the misinformation at hand.
2- Respond gently and kindly. Confrontational messaging attacking the character of the sharer or aiming to elicit shame are unlikely to change opinions and, worse yet, may entrench them further into misinformed beliefs. While important not to affirm the misinformation itself, consider empathizing with how they came to believe it: “I know that source seems convincing but here’s why it conflicts with what I learned in my medical training.”
3- When possible, try to craft relevant stories and real-world experiences into the response. Storytelling has been used to exchange information for millennia and despite improved statistical and scientific literacy, narrative elements remain an incredibly effective means of public persuasion. Consider the most memorable television commercials you’ve experienced; many of them likely wove narratives incorporating their product. If you can paint a picture that people relate to, they’re more likely to connect and retain the information.
4- Be mindful that your audience is not exclusively nor most importantly the initial sharer of misinformation. Your impact may be most profound toward onlookers of your response. Build your response to be palatable to this broader audience; try to keep responses concise and strictly relevant to the topic at hand. For this reason as well, don’t feel discouraged if you don’t appear to change the beliefs of the initial misinformation poster. Exposure to your message may also have been one source among many that will eventually lead to the initial sharer’s attitude change.
It’s important to realize that as a medical professional using social influence to combat the spread of misinformation may have as meaningful an impact on public health as conducting clinical practice. At a time where the recommendations of health officials, academics and medical institutions are more frequently being called into question, it’s critical we use what influence we have to promote trust in quality science.