Brandon Cohen


February 13, 2017

Are social media outlets (such as Facebook) useful places to educate the public about health? Or is this counterproductive to the goal of a transparent, well-informed, public discourse on issues of treatment and prevention? A recent article on Medscape by Dr Jennifer Gunter explored this question, contending that physicians and other healthcare providers should inform and assist the public through accurate, well-reasoned Facebook posts. A lively discussion ensued, with a broad range of healthcare professionals offering varied points of view. [Some comments have been edited for clarity and length.]

A psychologist kicked things off with a ringing endorsement, declaring that "Facebook is good. Why not share our knowledge? I believe that we need to stand together against the hype and misinformation and then spread that shared knowledge around through Facebook and Twitter."

A nutritionist agreed:

Every bit of knowledge that we convey adds up over time. Sometimes it can be frustrating to battle the constant barrage of false information and half-truths out there, but it is our duty to impart facts and information to others. In a nonthreatening way, we need to confront and discredit false information posted by others. Passing on knowledge is one of the key components to making a better society for ourselves and our fellow citizens.

A public health professional also supported this social media practice, citing numerous cases in which good information was needed to counteract the bad:

Agree! Facebook provides lots of opportunities to contribute scientifically sound opinions to your friends' discussions. There are many misconceptions out there! Vaccination, dieting, disease transmission, and quack preventions and cures are but a few. Remember that on Facebook, you are posting to your friends and to their friends. Avoid being judgmental in your posts, and you are likely to influence at least a few, and some may even pass your wisdom on to others.

A physician assistant concurred and, like others, stressed the need for tact and common sense:

I frequently post articles from the Cleveland Clinic and other reliable sources on my Facebook page. In addition, if I see that acquaintances of mine have posted (wildly) inaccurate information on Facebook, I try to tactfully draw it to their attention. I regularly post reliable information on the same topic, no doubt prompting my Facebook readers to think, "Oh no, not her again!"

But not everyone was on board. A registered nurse saw little value in disseminating medical opinions online, advising colleagues to stick to politics. "Facebook is the place to promote the Affordable Care Act and Planned Parenthood, but people need to rely on their primary care providers for health advice."

A surgeon also saw the danger of trying to compete in an arena overloaded with bad information:

By sharing medical facts in public and social platforms, we invite half-baked doctors in the form of patients. I am sure many of the facts provided by nondoctors are industry-driven to take advantage of the latest craving for different modalities of treatment.

But an administrator disagreed that "ordinary" people are entirely hopeless at sifting truth from misinformation, advising healthcare professionals to "assume that patients are capable of learning."

Another healthcare professional reminds us that even physicians are not infallible and occasionally peddle false information. Some patients suffer greatly by relying only on "educated" and "accurate" information imparted by physicians.

A radiologist expressed a specific concern, "I have a problem with chiropractors treating babies and children for childhood diseases. It takes courage to refute these claims."

An administrator responded by advising a hands-off approach:

Unless the chiropractic treatment is likely to be harmful, it may be unwise to comment on it. At the very least, chiropractic interventions can induce a placebo effect, making the patient feel better. And they may actually be able to help.

A primary care physician, who saw room for ambiguity and the need to match the tactic to the situation, recommended that although we should be diplomatic, "we shouldn't stay quiet just because we are scared of losing a few Facebook friends."

An administrator advocated other approaches:

Instead of directly refuting erroneous information, we should share our expertise. For example, with respect to some genetic disorders, we should point out that the cause is genetic, and nothing beyond symptomatic management is indicated. If the disease likely has an infectious cause, suggest that the patient see a physician for appropriate measures just to make sure it gets cleared up.

The last word goes to a registered nurse who views the practice of sharing on social media as an unavoidable part of modern life, saying, "Encourage your colleagues to post sound, evidence-based health information on social media. Facebook, Twitter, and other outlets are how people give and receive news today. It's a different world, and with some effort, we can make a difference."

The full discussion of this topic is available here.


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