THE first troll Dr Shikha Jain encountered was angry about vaccines.
The person responded a few years ago to Dr Jain’s tweet about getting a flu vaccine with a message criticising her appearance and telling the doctor she obviously didn’t know anything about medicine.
Even before Covid-19, American doctors faced harassment just for sharing health information. Now, in a pandemic where even evidence- based suggestions such as wearing masks and physically distancing have become political, doctors open their social media only to find more anger.
“It’s unfortunate that this has become such a commonplace issue, ” says Dr Jain, an oncologist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine.
Dr Jain says she and her colleagues have been labelled socialists or liberals, and accused of profiting off the pandemic. “We’re getting attacked, and it’s getting put into the political sphere, when this really shouldn’t be a political conversation, ” she says.
A new study co-authored by Dr Jain and other doctors at North-western University and the University of Chicago revealed physicians are sexually harassed and personally attacked online on the basis of their gender, religion, race or recommendations. About one quarter of doctors said they had been harassed online, according to the study released Monday in Jama’s (Journal of the American Medical Association) Internal Medicine journal. Data was collected before Covid-19, but the authors note that the harassment has only intensified during the pandemic.
“It’s more and more obvious that the type of rhetoric and attacks that were happening prepandemic seem to have ramped up in the very polarised and stressful time that we’ve been living in over the last year, ” Dr Jain says.
She says she has received angry messages about vaccines, as well as sexually explicit direct messages.
Anticipating the pandemic would make for a tough year online, Dr Jain co-founded an Covid-19 advocacy group, the Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team, in March 2020. The group came to Dr Jain’s defence when a radio station criticised her for encouraging people to stay home.
This type of harassment is damaging for people already at a disadvantage, including women and people of colour, who are historically left out of the upper echelons of the profession. Social media might become one more way that women are weeded out, Dr Jain says, if they leave online platforms because of harassment.
Dr Vineet Arora, assistant dean for scholarship and discovery at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, also co-authored the study. She emphasises that physicians use their own free time to offer public health information and that the harassment adds more stress.
In the study, which researchers said was to their knowledge the first to assess physician experiences with online harassment, one in six women doctors reported being sexually harassed. This echoes data that shows women and people of colour are attacked more online.
Doctors also reported everything from death threats to trolls contacting employers and certifying boards with fake complaints in the survey.
Of the 464 participants who responded to the 2019 survey – which asked two questions: Have you ever been personally targeted or attacked on social media? Have you ever been sexually harassed on social media? – 42% were men, and 58% were women or nonbinary.
Examples of personal attacks included a doctor who recounted that anti-vaccine people wrote negative reviews and sent a death threat. One doctor received racial threats, including someone saying they should leave the country. Another doctor was sent images of WWII Holocaust victims after posts related to being Jewish. Women doctors reported receiving sexually explicit messages, including pornographic images. Two described threats of assault, including a black woman threatened with rape by white supremacists after her civil rights advocacy.
As people remain sceptical of the Covid-19 vaccines – especially in communities of colour where distrust in the medical system runs deep – real risks exist if black doctors do not want to engage online and emphasise vaccine safety, Dr Arora says: “If they’re worried about speaking up because of social media attacks, that’s going to be a problem where we all lose.”
Employers and professional societies should support doctors who experience harassment and seek ways to help, the authors wrote, especially as social media plays a role in networking, medical education and research.
“Physicians (are) extending themselves to advocate online for public health issues, and they’re receiving threats that go as extreme as death threats, ” Dr Arora says. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service
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