Study details COVID-19 misinformation by physicians on social media

By Christopher Cheney

The most common theme of COVID-19 misinformation from physicians on social media was discouraging people from getting coronavirus vaccines, a new research article found.

About one-third of COVID-19-related deaths in the United States were considered preventable if public health recommendations had been followed, the new research article says. Misinformation about COVID-19 by physicians is alarming because physicians are widely considered as trusted sources of information about public health recommendations.

The new study is based on searches of five high-use social media platforms—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Parler, and YouTube—as well as two media outlets—The New York Times and National Public Radio. Data was collected about COVID-19 misinformation by 52 U.S. physicians from January 2021 to December 2022. The study was published by JAMA Network Open.

The study generated several key findings:

  • Misinformation categories included vaccines, medications, masks, and “other” such as conspiracy theories
  • Vaccine misinformation was most common at 42 physicians (80.8%), followed by “other” misinformation at 28 physicians (53.8%) and medication misinformation at 27 physicians (51.9%)
  • Forty physicians (76.9%) posted misinformation in more than one category
  • The physicians who engaged in misinformation represented 28 medical specialties and misinformation was most common among primary care physicians
  • Nearly one-third (16 of 52) the physicians were linked to groups with a history of spreading medical misinformation such as America’s Frontline Doctors
  • Twitter was the most commonly used social media platform among the physicians (37 of 52 physicians), with the physicians having a median of 67,400 followers
  • Some of the misinformation made unsubstantiated claims that vaccines were ineffective at limiting the spread of COVID-19
  • Some of the misinformation made unsubstantiated claims that COVID-19 vaccines were harmful such as causing infertility and immune system damage
  • Many of the physicians promoted the use of untested or non-Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs for COVID-19, most notably ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine
  • Many of the physicians made unsubstantiated claims about mask wearing, either claiming mask wearing was ineffective or harmful

The research found significant COVID-19 misinformation by physicians, the study’s co-authors wrote. “In this mixed-methods study of U.S. physician propagation of COVID-19 misinformation on social media, results suggest widespread, inaccurate, and potentially harmful assertions made by physicians across the country who represented a range of subspecialties.”

Interpreting the data

Organizations that have been linked to medical misinformation in the past played a large role in medical misinformation during the coronavirus pandemic, the study’s co-authors wrote.

“Some of the physicians identified belonged to organizations that have been propagating medical misinformation for decades, but these organizations became more vocal and visible in the context of the pandemic’s public health crisis, political divisiveness, and social isolation. Understanding the motivation for misinformation propagation is beyond the scope of this study, but it has become an increasingly profitable industry within and outside of medicine. For example, America’s Frontline Doctors implemented a telemedicine service that charged $90 per consult, primarily to prescribe hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin for COVID-19 to patients across the country, profiting at least $15 million from the endeavor,” they wrote.

The absence of policies and laws against medical misinformation make it likely that the problem will continue to be a concern, the study’s co-authors wrote. “Twitter’s elimination of safeguards against misinformation and the absence of federal laws regulating medical misinformation on social media platforms suggest that misinformation about COVID-19 and other medical misinformation is likely to persist and may increase. Deregulation of COVID-19 misinformation on social media platforms may have far-reaching implications because consumers may struggle to evaluate the accuracy of the assertions made.”

Many physicians who engage in medical misinformation are likely to escape discipline, the study’s co-authors wrote. “National physicians’ organizations, such as the American Medical Association, have called for disciplinary action for physicians propagating COVID-19 misinformation, but stopping physicians from propagating COVID-19 misinformation outside of the patient encounter may be challenging. Although professional speech may be regulated by courts and the FDA has been called on to address medical misinformation, few physicians appear to have faced disciplinary action. Factors such as licensing boards’ lack of resources available to dedicate toward monitoring the internet and state government officials’ challenges to medical boards’ authority to discipline physicians propagating misinformation may limit action.”

The study has revealing findings on COVID-19 misinformation by physicians and the research should help efforts to combat medical misinformation, the study’s co-authors wrote.

“Results of this mixed-methods study of the propagation of COVID-19 misinformation by US physicians on social media suggest that physician-propagated misinformation has reached many people during the pandemic and that physicians from a range of specialties and geographic regions have contributed to the ‘infodemic.’ High-quality, ethical healthcare depends on inviolable trust between healthcare professionals, their patients, and society. Understanding the degree to which the misinformation about vaccines, medications, masks, and conspiracy theories spread by physicians on social media influences behaviors that put patients at risk for preventable harm, such as illness or death, will help to guide actions to regulate content or discipline physicians who participate in misinformation propagation related to COVID-19 or other conditions.”

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.

Found in Categories: 
Infection Control

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