Pushed to the brink, physician frustration over COVID-19 misinformation grows 

COVID-19 is still causing hundreds of deaths a day and tens of thousands of hospitalizations. Still, myths and misinformation about the disease, vaccines and treatments are rampant, fueling growing frustration among overburdened healthcare providers, according to a Dec. 28 report from The New York Times. 

The misinformation continues to keep doubters from getting vaccinated, which adds to the conditions physicians are trying to manage in understaffed, overburdened healthcare organizations. As they battle the tripledemic of COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus and flu, physicians are battered by patient questions based on misleading information including stories about unproven medications such as ivermectin.

Researchers in Australia believe social media, especially Twitter, is to blame. 

After a month (Nov. 1 to Dec. 5, 2022) of studying more than 500,000 tweets mentioning COVID-19 and terms including "hoax," "deep state" and "bioweapon," — which were re-tweeted 580,000 times and had more than 1.6 million likes — the Australian research team found the vast amount of misleading and inaccurate information on Twitter is one of the reasons patients continue to question approved treatments. 

Anish Agarwal, MD, deputy director of Penn Medicine's Center for Digital Health in Philadelphia, told the Times that misinformation has gone beyond getting medical advice from friends. Now patients are talking about what Dr. Agarwal called "crazy" claims they've read on social media including the idea that vaccines implant robots into people's bodies. 

"We battle that every single day," said Dr. Agarwal, who is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Several social media outlets, including Twitter, have tried to stop the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, with over 11,000 Twitter accounts suspended between January 2020 and September 2022. However, experts say it's not enough.

Dr. Naomi Smith, a sociologist at the Federation of University Australia and one of the researchers on the Twitter study, said any efforts to stem misinformation from swirling on social media are "falling over in real time," a fact she called "both interesting…and absolutely terrifying."

"Pre-COVID-19, people who believed in medical misinformation were generally just talking to each other, contained within their own little bubble, and you had to go and do a bit of work to find that bubble," Dr. Smith said. "But now, you don’t have to do any work to find that information — it is presented in your feed with any other types of information."



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