A small group of Malaysian doctors are taking on health misconceptions on social media via the hashtag #MedTweetMy.
Back in 2016, Dr Khairul Hafidz Alkhair noticed that there were a lot of half-truths on health spreading widely on social media. On Facebook, he has seen users share unverified health tips or suggest do-it-yourself treatments that are more harmful than good.
“I say half-truths because it starts with the correct information but then the reasonings are all wrong. That’s when I decided to jump in and start giving people the right information,” he said.
Dr Khairul Hafidz created a personal Twitter account, @khairul_hafidz, so anyone can ask him a general health related question.
He began by taking on popular misconceptions and even encountered questions such as, “will showering at night cause water to enter the lung”.
He said once he explained the actual causes of water in the lung, the person understood that it cannot be caused by something as simple as showering at night.
Some have also tweeted that on occasions they were unable to move after waking up – this scary experience is usually blamed on a spirit pressing down or sitting on the person, preventing him or her from moving.
“I’ll tell them that this could be due to sleep paralysis. Your brain is still active during rest so it tries to signal parts of your body like your hands or feet. But because the body is still resting, you feel it’s difficult to move,” he said.
Dr Khairul Hafidz said he has experienced it himself and it usually occurs when a person is feeling physically tired.
“Your body wants to relax but somehow your mind remains active,” he said.
He also noted that some believed that consuming ice can cause cervical cancer and his answer is: “Ice can’t enter your organs and trigger such an effect.”
And sometimes he gets asked if a person can still grow taller – he said he will ask for the person’s age before responding, as growth is not a lifelong process.
When he started getting 100 questions a day on Twitter, Dr Khairul Hafidz realised that he needed to get more doctors to join his cause in combating medical myths. He also created the hashtag #MedTweetMy for tracking progress.
Dr Khairul Hafidz said there is a lack of medical websites in Bahasa Malaysia.
“Some feel that we should have an official website but communication is more fluid on social media. It’s also the best way to reach out to more people,” he added.
Today, the official #MedTweetMy Twitter account – @MedTweetMYHQ – has over 49,000 followers and is run by a collective of over 40 Malaysian doctors from various fields, including dentistry, oncology and aesthetic medicine.
Dr Afida Sohana Awang Soh, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, said she was instantly drawn to the cause of #MedTweetMy.
“We have the same vision – we wanted to bust those medical myths. Some are very shocking and quite worrisome. It hit me harder as even my own mom was sharing these information,” she said.
Dr Afida Sohana said she will take the time to answer at least 10 questions posed by users on her Twitter account (@AfidaSohana) in a week.
“I’ll do what I can during lunch time. With some questions, you really need the time to come up with proper answers,” she said.
One of the most popular questions that she has been asked is about eating placentas, as it’s a common belief that its consumption can help women recover from childbirth and even prevent post-partum depression.
There are many YouTube videos of users sharing their experiences and one even shows how to blend placenta into a smoothie.
However, Dr Afida Sohana doesn’t recommend it. In a Twitter thread, she cited a report by the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to explain how babies can contract bacterial infection from mothers who consumed placenta.
Skincare is another popular topic on social media, says Dr Aris Fadzillah Mazlan (@drarisfadzillah). The aesthetic and anti-ageing doctor, who has over 30,000 followers on social media, said users today are very fortunate.
“Back then, if I had skin problems and needed a solution, I would have to see a doctor and pay a consultation fee. #MedTweetMy allows people to reach out to medical practitioners freely and conveniently,” he said.
Not everyone is a fan of #MedTweetMy, particularly those who sell products with unsubstantiated claims. And most use social media to promote their products to prospective buyers, with many claiming that they are able to cure ailments of all sorts.
Dr Khairul Hafidz declined to name the brands as this could potentially get him into legal trouble but hoped that sellers will be more mindful about making claims.
“According to a guideline issued by the Pharmaceutical Services Programme under the Health Ministry, products cannot be advertised to cure or prevent 20 medical conditions and this includes diabetes, asthma, cancer and impotence,” he said.
“Right now there are a lot of sellers who claim that their products can cure or prevent such ailments and some users believe these products will help. When I see a product making too many claims without evidence-based research, I will reject it.”
Users should not simply take the products as some could be harmful to their health.
“If you speak to my colleagues in the emergency department like Dr Rafidah Abdullah who is a nephrologist (kidney specialist), you will hear a lot of crazy stories,” said Dr Afida Sohana.
Dr Rafidah (@rafidah72) has been vocal on social media about the dangers of such products and she advocates against taking them without a doctor’s recommendation.
Not surprisingly, her recommendations drew flak from some sellers who feared her comments would jeopardise their livelihoods.
And then there are those who offer tips, especially on beauty and weight loss. Dr Aris Fadzillah said he has seen users posting tips on getting beautiful skin with ingredients such as cinnamon powder, apple cider vinegar and rice water, and these tips usually go viral. Cinnamon powder, for example, could cause burns if applied to the skin in excessive amounts, he said.
“People want something easy. And such tips are bound to attract people’s attention, more than posts asking them to consult a doctor,” he said.
There are also some topics that the doctors have to be sensitive about such as traditional medicine and practices. Medical practitioners who question traditional beliefs will invite a lot of criticism even in a modern age, said Dr Khairul Hafidz.
Such topics have to be approached with extra care and caution, he added.
The real deal
Though #MedTweetMy helps combat medical myths in the hope of stopping the spread of misinformation, doctors cannot offer medical diagnoses on social media, said Dr Khairul Hafidz, who hopes that users will see a doctor in real life when faced with an illness.
“To diagnose a person you need to see him or her face-to-face. You can’t make a diagnosis from just a sentence on Twitter, as you need to examine the person,” said Dr Afida Sohana.
Dr Aris Fadzillah said it’s not uncommon for users to tweet #MedTweetMy with images of, say, a skin condition, in the hopes of getting a diagnosis.
“I can’t give a medical diagnosis based on an image, as it goes against our practice,” said Dr Aris Fadzillah.
Dr Khairul Hafidz added that one of #MedTweetMy aims is also about addressing people’s fear of seeing doctors.
“I think patients are scared about getting scolded by a doctor. I have told my peers that the way we talk to our patients has to change. We need to make them feel comfortable about coming to see us,” he said.
Nowadays most people tend to diagnose themselves by searching Google, he said, which has changed the interaction between doctors and patients.
“We’re seeing a new way of consultation now. A patient who has Googled his or her symptoms sees the doctor to discuss what he or she has learned. For me, Googling or learning about your symptoms online is good because it creates a sense of urgency to see the doctor,” he said.
“Then you should let the doctor do what is necessary to confirm or contradict your fears.”