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MGH

Published On May 20, 2021

POLICY

Our Call to Communicate the Truth

Science and public health have been under steady attack. It is up to medical professionals to fight back.

It is now possible to imagine a world recovered from COVID-19. In that future, how will medicine have changed? These 10 essays explore the technical, social and political ripples of the pandemic.

A high school acquaintance recently asked if I would speak to the staff of a small company about the COVID-19 vaccine. They had questions, and the only vetting I needed was that someone had vouched for me. I agreed, because this was a chance to provide correct information that they’d share with their friends and families. I believe this role of scientific evangelist will become more and more a part of our job descriptions in the years to come.

In the first months of COVID-19, the World Health Organization had already called out the alarming threat of misinformation—the “infodemic.” We all saw false statements spread rapidly, aided at times by top-level politicians. The findings of scientists became a topic for political debate, and trust in national medical experts such as Anthony Fauci often split along partisan lines. 

Misinformation costs lives. It has led, in the past year, to flouted safety protocols, to people using ineffective or dangerous treatments and to hesitancy around vaccines. How will we stop the spread?

While the traditional gatekeepers against misinformation—public health authorities, watchdogs of social media and policymakers—are all distilling lessons from the infodemic, it will not fall to them to stop it. It will fall to grassroots-level health care professionals, who must become the trusted voices in our communities once again. 

People place enormous trust in their community. That roomful of office workers could have read a statement from the CDC. But they wanted to hear the truth from the friend of a friend. A 2017 study from the American Press Institute found that people were more likely to believe a news story shared on social media by someone they trust, irrespective of the news source itself.

Whether we realize it or not, we in health care think the same way. To be sure, we spend years training our brains to be skeptical of our “gut feelings” and to trust evidence-based medicine, but we’re not data-driven computers. We “trust the evidence” because we trust the people and processes we know.

We should learn from the current moment and each commit to being more vocal in our communities. We all need to be out there—on social media, on the local news, in op-eds. People may not trust the voice of a public health official they’ve never met, but the community doctor they know can change minds and, in the process, save lives. 

To make sure we’re communicating effectively, we absolutely must enhance communication education. It is a skill that needs to be systematically taught—in medical school, in residency and in continuing medical education. Effective communication with patients and the public should not just be a gift that some health professionals have and some don’t. It is, now more than ever, our duty to society.

Our patients are going to be hearing information from somebody. We need to make sure they trust what they hear from us.

Hemal Sampat // internist and pediatrician at MGH