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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 published a statement in The Lancet decrying 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 “Medicine Deconstructed.”

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.

Make Sure All Staff Get Reliable Information

Hospitals are scrambling to keep staff safe with up-to-date directives and debunk false narratives about the virus. Keeping all hospital staff informed with verified and authoritative facts about the coronavirus is a key objective of the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Disaster Medicine.

The Center’s coronavirus educational materials are distributed to all staffers from physicians to janitors. “These provide information that they need to understand the risks and keep themselves safe,” said Eileen Searle, PhD, the Biothreats Clinical Operations program manager in the CDM.

According to Dr. Searle, the hospital keeps a continually updated COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions document in its internal computer system. All employees can access it, she said, and it’s updated to include questions as they come up.

Even valets and front-desk volunteers are encouraged to read the FAQ, she said, since “they’re the first people that family and patients are interacting with.” The document “gives them reassurance about delivering messages,” she said.

Use Patience With Your Patients

Dr. Rutland urges colleagues to take the time to listen to patients and educate them. “Reduce the gap between you and them,” said Dr. Rutland, who treats patients in Orange and Riverside counties. “Take off your white coat, sit down, and talk to the person about their concerns.”

Boston cardiologist Haider Warraich, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, said it’s important to “put medical information into a greater human context.” For example, he has told patients that he’s still taking his daughter to school despite COVID-19 risks. “I take the information I provide and apply it to my own life,” he said.

The Washington State Department of Health offers this advice to physicians to counter false information and stigma: “Stay updated and informed on COVID-19 to avoid miscommunication or inaccurate information. Talk openly about the harm of stigma. View people directly impacted by stigma as people first. Be conscious of your language. Acknowledge access and language barriers.”

Speak Out on Social Media — but Don’t Fight

Should medical professionals speak out about COVID-19 misinformation via social media? It’s an individual decision, Dr. Warraich said, “but my sense is that it’s never been more important for physicians to be part of the fray and help quell the epidemic of misinformation that almost always follows any type of medial calamity.”

Dr. Rutland, vice president and founding member of the Association for Healthcare Social Media, cautioned that effective communication via social media requires care. Avoid confrontation, he advised. “Don’t call people stupid or say things like, ‘I went to medical school and I’m smarter than you.’ ”

Instead, he said, “it’s important to just state the facts: These are the people who are dying, these are the people who are getting infected.”

And, he added, remember to push the most important message of all: Wash your hands!

Public Health Organizations Fight the ‘Infodemic’

In a trend that hearkens back to the days of snake oil cures for all maladies, advertisements for fake treatments are popping up on the Internet and on other media.

Facebook and Amazon have acted to remove these ads but these messages continue to flood social media such as Twitter, WhatsApp, and other sites. Discussion groups on platforms such as Reddit continue to pump out misinformation about COVID-19. Conspiracy theories that link the virus to espionage and bioweapons are making the rounds on the Internet and talk radio.

Wrong information about the effectiveness of non-N95 face masks to protect wearers against infection is widespread, leading to shortages for medical personnel and price gouging. Pernicious rumors about the effectiveness of substances such a vinegar, silver, garlic, lemon juice, and even vodka to disinfect hands and surfaces abound on the Internet. An especially dangerous stream of misinformation stigmatizes ethnic groups and individuals as sources of the infection.

The World Health Organization identified early in the COVID-19 outbreak the global wave of misinformation about the virus and dubbed the problem the “infodemic.” The WHO “Q & A” page on COVID-19 is updated frequently and addresses myths and rumors currently circulating.

According to the WHO website, the agency has reached out to social media players such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, TikTok, and Weibo, the microblogging site in China. WHO has worked with these sites to curb the “infodemic” of misinformation and has used these sites for public education outreach on COVID-19. “Myth busting” infographics posted on a WHO web page are also reposted on major social media sites.

The CDC has followed with its own “frequently asked questions” page to address questions and rumors. State health agencies have put up COVID-19 pages to address public concerns and offer advice on prevention. The Maryland Department of Health web page directly addresses dangerous misinformation: “Do not stigmatize people of any specific ethnicities or racial background. Viruses do not target people from specific populations, ethnicities or racial backgrounds. Stay informed and seek information from reliable, official sources. Be wary of myths, rumors and misinformation circulating online and elsewhere. Health information shared through social media is frequently inaccurate, unless coming from an official, reliable source such as the CDC, MDH or local health departments.”

The Washington State Department of Health has taken a more assertive stance on stigma. The COVID-19 web page recommends to the public: “Show compassion and support for individuals and communities more closely impacted. Avoid stigmatizing people who are in quarantine. They are making the right choice for their communities. Do not make assumptions about someone’s health status based on their ethnicity, race or national origin.”

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