Let’s Talk About This Infodemic of Misinformation, Experts Agree

Misinformation is not supported by the data on the science of vaccination, agreed experts during “Combating Misinformation in Science,” which took place at the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Annual Scientific Meeting.

Although medical misinformation has circulated since long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the allergist/immunologist experts who spoke during “Combating Misinformation in Science” at the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Annual Scientific Meeting agree that the past almost 2 years have seen antiscience rhetoric and concern explode into the public’s consciousness.

In this battle between the virus and the vaccine, it’s important to seek out the science, to get at the reasons behind how scientific misinformation became a problem, and to have practical tools at the ready to effectively and empathetically counter arguments not based on scientific data.

Presenting during this session were Gerald Lee, MD, FACAAI, associate professor of pediatrics, Children’s Health Care of Atlanta and Emory University’s School of Medicine, and David R. Stukus, MD, FACAAI, Nationwide Children’s Hospital and The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

The How and the Why1

“It’s important to recognize that the misinformation out there is promoting vaccine hesitancy,” Lee emphasized, despite COVID-19 cases declining as vaccination rates increase. How is it that this battle between the virus and the vaccine came to be?

Although over 70% of US adults have received at least 1 dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, that also means that more than 25% have not—and this has remained fairly consistent since December 2020. Of that 25%, most either intend to get vaccinated only if required or never; just one-fourth intend to get vaccinated by year-end 2021.

Presenting survey results, Lee pointed out that a majority of those who remain unvaccinated (no doses at all) believe the vaccine holds a bigger risk than becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2. Breaking this down further, of those who steadfastly refuse to get vaccinated, the top reason again is that the vaccine holds a bigger risk. These refusals, unfortunately, usually are not based on scientific evidence, he added, and the concerns sometimes cited for refusal are rare occurrences: anaphylaxis has been shown to occur in just 5.0 cases per 1 million vaccine doses and myocarditis, 14 to 19 cases per million doses.

Social media has played a large part in all of this because misinformation can spread so easily, often from algorithms that promote content that elicits emotional responses—even to just a headline. From December 2019 to February 2020 alone, he noted misinformation via social medial channels exploded and was shown to actually decrease some persons’ intent to get vaccinated. On top of this, close to 80% of Snapchat and TikTok users view those channels as important sources of reliable vaccine-related information, and 30% use just their gut instinct to decide if a source is trustworthy—meaning that these decisions can be prone to bias, are not related to information accuracy, and often are due to inattention.

“We want our patients to have the right information,” Lee emphasized.

How can this be accomplished? Talk to your doctors, talk to your physicians, he stated, because we listen. Air your concerns and ask your questions. Communication and discussion are key to making rational decisions that are less prone to error, because inattention can lead to confusion, which itself can lead to the deliberate sharing of false information.

What Can Be Done2

“We want to be there for our patients. We want to spend time with them. And we want to use that trust we’ve developed with them to combat misinformation and have conversations with them,” agreed Stukus, before laying down a call for effective solutions against misinformation.

Allergists have special relationships with our patients, he continued because of the long-term relationships, built-up trust, and common areas of concern. It’s important to take advantage of these relationships, as one possible way to combat misinformation, because they enable allergists to be reliable resources for their patients in that they can listen, give their time, show empathy, and monitor patients’ body language, as well as let them know their allergists are available for follow-up discussions.

“One thing I always say to my patients is, ‘Thank you for discussing this with me today. If you have any concerns at all, please don’t hesitate to give me a call or send me a message,’” Stukus said.

The best defense is a good offense, he continued, and this can be accomplished first and foremost by understanding where our patients are coming from, knowing that social media is changing how people process misinformation, and understanding how they are being influenced.

To do this, it is helpful to recognize the inherent cognitive biases that exist, “because we all have them,” Stukus said, as well as hidden influence. Millions of pieces of information are hijacking our brains every day, he continued, which can alter thinking patterns in not only how we frame things, but also what we choose to believe and how we act.

“It’s easy to understand why our patients can be deceived by this,” he added. “If all you hear is the negative information, you don’t realize there is correct information.”

Multipronged approaches work best, Stukus emphasized, and in order to make these work, it’s important to consider the following:

  • Recognize there may be disparities in the information to which people have access
  • Proactively engage with patients and the public
  • Use technology and media platforms to share evidence-based information
  • Partner with community groups and local organizations
  • Recognize when there is low health literacy
  • Lead with the important information
  • Ask if, and how, people understand the information they are getting
  • Discuss risk with patients
  • Keep calm and encourage critical thinking

Overall, to truly understand patients, clinicians must try and think like them; ask about, but not criticize, their sources of information; and discuss the science, but not dumb it down.

“We can explain things in a way that makes it easier for people to understand. We don’t need to be judgmental or argumentative. We are caring health care professionals,” he concluded.

References

1. Lee GB. How and why did misinformation become a problem in medicine? Presented at: ACAAI 2021 Annual Scientific Meeting; November 4-8, 2021; New Orleans, LA.
2. Stukus DR. Practical tools to combat misinformation in your practice. Presented at: ACAAI 2021 Annual Scientific Meeting; November 4-8, 2021; New Orleans, LA.