Educating yourself about misinformation circulating on social media will help you talk with your patients about false claims. This may prevent dangerous behaviors and promote health.
If you’re advocating for science, you’re in politics. Because policy lives and dies at the feet of partisan politics. Congratulations and condolences. Healthcare professionals (HCPs) have been thrust into an unenviable time in our nation’s history. You’re now front and center and frequently requested by PR firms that book professionals on national television, podcasts, and streaming news shows. At work, you might be overwhelmed, understaffed, and have patients who doubt, if not completely mistrust, science. You know that how you speak with your patients matters, but your training likely didn’t include how to talk with a patient:
1. During a pandemic
2. While pseudoscience and other misinformation is spread 24/7 online
3. In the middle of an organized and funded anti-vaccine movement
4. When the highest level of government in the U.S. created confusion with misinformation about COVID-19 throughout 2020
5. While healthcare professionals’ ethics are being questioned by some political leaders
6. When public health messaging was inconsistent and experts were marginalized
7. When Dunning-Kruger Syndrome runs rampant
How to talk with patients about misinformation
Many patients are regular consumers of social media. Those who believe the fringe content they read can be challenging to communicate effectively with. Here are a few tips for approaching these conversations:
Patient: “I don’t want a COVID test. I don’t trust it.”
HCP: “Can you share with me why you feel concerned?” Concern is less provocative than distrust—reframe and make eye contact.
Patient: “I heard the government will track me and there might be a 5G chip in the test.”
HCP: “Can you share with me where you heard this information?”
Patient: “Friends, Facebook, Twitter, Parler.”
HCP: “It’s understandable that you feel worried. My job is to keep you healthy and safe. We both want you to be healthy for you, your friends, and family. This COVID test is quick. (Share a few facts about the test to demystify. Be sure you’re using language the patient can easily understand.) It’s nothing more than a long Q-tip. We simply swab the inside of your nose and send it to the lab. The results will help us keep you safe and your family and loved ones safe. Can we go ahead and get this test done so that we can take care of you today?”
Keep conversations simple, relatable, and calm. Sit instead of stand. Convey empathy with both body language and words. Be sure to say “it’s understandable,” instead of, “I understand.” As a HCP you likely don’t understand how anyone could believe that a 5G chip would be implanted during a COVID-19 nasopharyngeal swab test. But saying “understandable” is authentic, because during a time of such pernicious influence of social media misinformation, we can all understand how confusing and scary this can be for patients.
Your situational awareness in the world of misinformation will improve your ability to address patient concerns quickly and effectively. When you hear patient concerns founded in conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and anti-vaccine rhetoric, it’s helpful to know what’s “out there” so you can address it quickly, confidently, and empathically. Finally, remember to be patient. Many people live in misinformation silos on social media and breaking through that wall may take time.