As medical students and future pediatricians, we recognize that childhood vaccines are one of the single greatest public health achievements of the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet, for one of us, a pregnant cousin announced over the Thanksgiving dinner table that she wasn’t going to vaccinate her unborn child. No matter the facts, research, or wealth of medical education, this cousin was firm in her beliefs that there was a better, healthier way to protect her child than vaccination.
Unfortunately, her viewpoint is not at all surprising given the misinformed headlines that permeate our Instagram feeds such as “The Danger of Vaccines” and “What Doctors Aren’t Telling You.”
Frustration and fear of vaccines are voiced on almost every social media platform. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve increasingly seen new moms banding together in force to navigate the stress of making these health decisions while striving to keep their children safe.
Clicking on these frightening headlines brings you to pages dedicated to debunking medical claims in the name of “holistic,” “low-tox,” “pro-safe,” and “natural” health. The depth of misinformation they share is shocking. But the reach of this movement has hit home for all of us as we increasingly find ourselves facing anti-vaccine believers not only within clinics, but also among our families and friends. We can’t help but wonder where we as medical professionals are going wrong that even our own families aren’t trusting us to guide their health decisions.
This flurry of viral misinformation has proven that it can be disastrous for public health. It will take medical providers and families coming together to combat this social media misinformation overload.
The anti-vaccine community has grown to the point where in 2019, the World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health. And we see this playing out before our eyes: as just one example, measles outbreaks are occurring in parts of the country where vaccine rates are as low as 50% — most recently the outbreak in central Ohio that started late last year.
The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated the rise in the vaccine-hesitant movement, with “anti-vaxxer” accounts increasing by 7.8 million followers since 2019, with 31 million total followers on Facebook and 17 million subscribers to similar YouTube channels.
Not only are these social media sites gaining followers, but the vaccine opposition content is also plentiful. One study showed that among YouTube videos on the topic of immunization, 32% opposed vaccination; these also had higher ratings and more views than pro-vaccine videos.
But the blame for misinformation can’t be placed on social media and its consumers alone. Medical providers impact this issue as well — it can be common for physicians to give information to patients in the form of long-winded, sterile, and jargon-filled explanations. We have seen physicians handing parents densely packed, black-and-white handouts as an attempt to answer family members’ questions about vaccines.
But pamphlets aren’t enough. On the other hand, we’ve also seen providers address these questions successfully by using metaphors, hand-drawn pictures, and relatable discussions, which leaves parents and patients much more satisfied and knowledgeable.
At the end of the day, we can all agree that parents, guardians, and pediatricians ultimately have the same goal: children’s well-being. We believe the root of vaccine hesitancy comes from a lack of easily digestible credible information, rather than malintent. To that end, we call upon both caretakers and physicians to work together to curb the rapid spread of misinformation online, allowing us to reclaim the power of social media to be educated healthcare consumers.
Just as providers must stay up to date on the latest biomedical literature, healthcare professionals must also stay informed on how information gets disseminated in the modern day. We urge pediatricians and healthcare institutions to reflect on what makes social media posts so digestible and to adopt strategies that reflect today’s trends. Medical providers’ continuing education should incorporate best practices in communication to learn how to effectively relay information to ever-evolving patient populations.
As in other industries, medical institutions should also invest in media relations to create relevant and relatable content available to caregivers on social media platforms. Adapting to modern methods of communication will allow us to better connect with our patients, thus building stronger therapeutic alliances.
The same need to recalibrate goes for our own families. Easily finding new information on Facebook, TikTok, or other platforms is undeniably one of the most beneficial parts of social media; however, the lack of validation measures on these platforms means that we should look at everything with a discerning eye.
Healthcare professionals must strongly encourage caregivers to scrutinize the information they encounter by referencing credible sources that are supported by research and medical professionals. And above all, we must remind patients and their families that they should always feel empowered to bring these thoughts to us, their trusted pediatricians and providers, as we all strive for open, ongoing conversations that contribute to a more informed future.
Sabrina Gonzalez, Alexandra Nader, and Rudmila Rashid are 4th year medical students at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. They are all pursuing a career in pediatrics after graduation. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the University of Pennsylvania Health System or the Perelman School of Medicine.
Source : MedPageToday