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COVID-19: Misinformation Media Campaign for the Public and Toolkit for Providers

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Alfred Landecker Democracy Fellow Asha Shajahan, MD, MHSA is a primary care physician, the Graduate Medical Education Director of Social Equity and Health Disparities at Beaumont Health and the Medical Director of Community Health at Beaumont Hospital, Grosse Pointe in the USA. She serves as an assistant professor at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine in Rochester, MI, USA. She serves as an executive leader of the national grassroots vaccine campaign, #THISISOURSHOT.  Asha proposes to equip doctors to be trusted digital messengers that can help guide evidence-based outcomes and advice for patients and families.

COVID-19 has amplified fake news, conspiracy theories, and misinformation. Public health and social justice have never been so closely intertwined as they are today. As a physician working on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asha has observed the consequences of misinformation firsthand. COVID-19 misinformation is dangerous because of its health consequences, such as causing people to ignore social distancing, not wearing face masks, and, consequently, putting others at risk. Misinformation is causing panic, anger, polarization between political parties, illness, and even death.

COVID-19 has amplified fake news, conspiracy theories, and misinformation. Public health and social justice have never been so closely intertwined as they are today.

The simple guideline to wear a mask has been majorly politicized in the United States. This has resulted in a division within the general public about best practices. Unlike many other previous health crises, the consequences are that states, cities, and even individuals are left to fend for themselves using a confusing variety of information. If there was more political support for public health science, the vast spread of this virus may have been avoided. As a primary care physician, about 80% of Asha’s patients have scheduled appointments just to gain clarity on COVID-19 and now the vaccine. In addition to diagnosing and treating, her work has evolved into handling and clarifying misinformation. Patients want to get the facts from a physician on the frontlines. They ask questions such as, “Doctor, I read that vitamin D will kill the virus. Do I still need to wear a mask?” Asha tries to teach them how to sort through misinformation; a skill that now has a direct impact on their health. 

Asha proposes to equip doctors with a fact-checking tool that can help guide evidence-based outcomes and advice.

People are skeptical about political agendas and are seeking information from their trusted doctors. However, the challenge to sift through misinformation is plaguing doctors as well. People working in healthcare do not always have the time, skills, or resources to accurately combat misinformation. Some healthcare workers are spreading misinformation themselves, often without realizing it. In addition, physicians are hesitant to take the digital media stage to address misinformation and further build trust with the public due to lack of training and unfamiliarity with digital platforms. Doctors have been discouraged to take the digital stage by the medical community as well. The reputation of “Hollywood” media doctors are frowned upon in the science community. 

However, Asha believes that it’s time medicine evolves with the times and doctors need to meet patients where, on social media. This is why Asha proposes to equip doctors with a misinformation curriculum and digital toolkit with evidence-based recommendations and guidance for healthcare providers to not only combat misinformation in the clinical setting but to take the digital stage to reach patients around the world. Her focus will be in engaging healthcare providers in addressing misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccines. 

Her focus will be in engaging healthcare providers in addressing misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccines. 

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, physicians are the most trusted messengers when it comes to advice about the vaccine.  Physicians have a unique opportunity to be public health advocates to bring us to a COVID-free world.  This tool would be created in collaboration with a national team of healthcare providers from the #THISISOURSHOT grassroots campaign in partnership with the PURPOSE/Verified initiative with the United Nations.  She will be providing trainings for providers to do town halls “live” on social media, write op-eds, talk about science in an understandable way for the general public, fact check on digital spaces, share personal healthcare hero stories and ultimately elevate the voices of healthcare heroes to build vaccine trust for a COVID-free world.  

In addition, Asha is working with a team from Harvard Global Health to bring together the best education and resources for healthcare providers on misinformation.  This will be tested through medical education in an 8-hospital health system and offered for medical education across the country.  Defending democracy includes public health and transparency of science. Involving the most trusted messengers, physicians, in the fight for accurate health information can and will save lives.

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