There’s a no shortage of what US President Donald Trump might call fake news about the coronavirus floating around social media, with plenty of it coming from his own Twitter account. That’s a problem for a growing number of US doctors.
When the virus first hit the US, Trump said it would disappear “like a miracle”. He’s since touted unproven therapies, cast doubt on government scientists and denigrated masks. After his own recent bout with Covid-19, he told his audience, “you’re going to beat it,” referring to a disease that’s killed more than 220,000 Americans.
Physicians must now add countering misinformation to their protocols for treating Covid-19. Michigan doctor Farhan Bhatti sees it in his daily practice. First his patients insisted the coronavirus was a hoax. Then they begged for a Trump-hyped malaria drug they thought would protect them. Now they say they won’t get a vaccine that actually might.
Scientific inquiry over the months since the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerged has revealed a lot about how it spreads and how to treat the disease it causes. Yet every day Bhatti sees patients who reject that evidence, sometimes at the expense of their own health.
“The ones who had sort of succumbed to the misinformation have been very difficult to treat medically,” said Bhatti, a 35-year-old family physician who runs a clinic for low-income patients in Lansing.
People’s understanding of the facts shapes their behaviour, which in turn affects their health and their risk of spreading the disease.
“Conspiracy theories and misinformation about science did exist before Covid, but they’re more deadly now,” Bhatti said.
Even before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic in March, the group warned of an “infodemic”: a flood of information, both accurate and not, “that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it,” the WHO said in a Feb 2 report.
Growing distrust in science combined with a proliferation of wrong information have made it harder to take care of patients, said Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association and an allergist/immunologist in Fort Worth, Texas.
“We have never seen a devastating pandemic like this play out in real time on the 24-hour news cycle, with social media dominating the conversation,” she said. “It’s incredibly hard to filter out what’s real and what’s not.”
Bailey said she’s had patients with asthma ask for medical notes to avoid wearing masks at work, requests that she denied because wearing a mask doesn’t interfere with breathing. Other patients are so fearful of the virus that they resist getting needed medical care, which also endangers their health, she said.
Before the pandemic, the AMA implored social media companies to address misinformation about vaccines online. In April, the group also called called on elected leaders to “affirm science, evidence and fact”.
That hasn’t happened, and one of the big reasons is Trump. The Cornell Alliance for Science identified the president as the “largest driver” of Covid-19 misinformation in a recent analysis of 38 million articles. Trump’s falsehoods on Covid include saying repeatedly that it will go away, promoting the malaria drug that turned out to have harmful side effects, suggesting a vaccine would be ready by November, and accusing federal health agencies of an agenda to sabotage his re-election campaign.
In response to rising misinformation about the pandemic, Bhatti joined with other physicians to form a group called Doctors Organized to Communicate Science. It’s a project of the Committee to Protect Medicare, a political group that has opposed Trump with ad spending. (Bhatti also testified in defense of the Affordable Care Act on Oct 15 at the Senate confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.)
Bhatti said the DOCS group is a nonpartisan spinoff dedicated “to provide facts based on science, just nonpartisan hard facts”.
Bhatti’s nonprofit clinic, called Care Free Medical, is about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from where armed men protested shutdown orders this past spring inside Michigan state capitol building.
Cars heading to the statehouse that day lined Saginaw Street. Bhatti said protesters showed up at the district office of the local Democratic congresswoman, which is in the same office building as Care Free Medical, and harassed some patients going into the clinic.
“They had the largest megaphone that day,” he said. He doesn’t think the armed opponents of the state’s stay-at-home order represented mainstream sentiment. But every day he encounters people who either believe misinformation about the virus or have at least been influenced by it. “I’ve had patients flat-out look me in the face and tell me this whole thing is a hoax,” he said.
One patient who spurned masks early in the pandemic got Covid and suffered shortness of breath for two months, Bhatti said. Her grandmother also got the virus and died from it. Later she told him that she wished she’d taken it more seriously and worn a mask.
When Trump said he was taking the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure, Bhatti had to turn down patients who asked for it. “I was the villain for not giving them a medicine,” he said. The drug was briefly evaluated as a potential therapy, but the Food and Drug Administration revoked its authorisation after finding no benefit and possible harm.
Bhatti also fears that patients won’t take an eventual coronavirus vaccine if one of the experimental shots now in trials is approved. Only half of Americans in a recent Gallup survey said they would be willing to take an FDA-approved vaccine if one were available right now, down 11 percentage points from August.
While Bhatti says many of the misconceptions he battles are most prevalent among his patients who support Trump, distrust of vaccines is bipartisan. Some patients on the right entertain conspiracy theories about Bill Gates’s involvement in the vaccine effort, and others on the left don’t trust Big Pharma.
He hopes to persuade all his patients to trust the science. But the resistance he encounters takes a toll.
“It’s really hard to not take it personally,” he said. “They’re telling you that they trust you to manage their insulin, but they don’t trust you to give good health advice as it pertains to Covid.” – Bloomberg