Debunking the Can of Worms” in-Training, the peer-reviewed online publication for medical students
Like many medical students, I am familiar with the antiparasitic drug ivermectin, a common drug taught in medical school. Ivermectin has become an unexpected topic in the COVID-19 pandemic. However, after seeing a patient at the clinic take ivermectin as an alternative to vaccination, the news hit differently.
Like many healthcare workers, I was frustrated with the already low immunization rate. I was puzzled as to how ivermectin, like hydroxychloroquine, became a talking point in COVID-19 treatments. There was a lack of evidence regarding the effectiveness of ivermectin in the treatment of COVID-19. However, an assortment of advocacy groups and online communities continue to cast the drug as the solution to the pandemic, further frustrating public health officials to clear the case and urge the public not to use it in outside of clinical trials.
The wave of misinformation, what the World Health Organization calls an infodemic, has been an undeniable aspect of the pandemic. We live in an age where social media is increasingly becoming the primary form of obtaining information. Their algorithms, which aim to keep users engaged on their platforms, have worsened the ability to spread misinformation. In response, social media companies began restricting and flagging posts relating to COVID-19.
But before COVID-19, there had been issues with health misinformation in the past. Tobacco companies have used tactics to diminish the reliability of studies that link smoking to lung cancer. As recently as 2006, a Harper magazine essay sparked controversy for supporting AIDS denialism, a pseudoscientific position that refuses to acknowledge that HIV causes AIDS.
In the context of our information-overloaded society, I think one of the main reasons for the prevalence of misinformation surrounding COVID-19 is its novelty. We are constantly bombarded with ever-changing information in our homes, cars and phones. Information about COVID-19, especially at the start of the pandemic, was evolving and changing, sometimes reverting to initial impressions.
As a medical student, I am expected to practice evidence-based medicine, dissecting the evolving scientific literature and assessing the strength of evidence, methodology and credibility of the latest publications. That’s not to say that COVID-19 hasn’t been disruptive or that medical students have had difficulty adjusting to the COVID-19 environment. However, as medical students, we had the tools to navigate the ever-changing landscape of our understanding of COVID-19.
For many members of the general public, it can be difficult to digest what is happening. I don’t blame them. After all, there are many stressors in life. With COVID-19 amplifying them, people are already exerting their mental energy and financial resources. Also, people don’t often learn to evaluate information the way they teach us to do in medical school. This makes it a prime environment for the spread of misinformation. Undoubtedly, it doesn’t help when public figures are the ones spreading misinformation.
What is more troubling, however, is when people with credentials are the ones helping to spread misinformation. Over the past year, these experts have claimed that COVID-19 was caused by 5G radio frequencies, advocated against COVID-19 vaccines, and go so far as to say that the pandemic is “the biggest hoax ever perpetuated. “.
The Federation of State Medical Boards said medical licenses could be suspended or even revoked for doctors spreading misinformation about COVID. This statement has been endorsed by the American Academic of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, and the American Academy of Family Physicians.
And there are reasons for such a strong reaction. Scientists and doctors hold an extremely trusted position in society, and when those with the qualifications abuse them, it can have terrifying consequences.
Looking back, I can better appreciate the perspective of patients while they were taking ivermectin. They had probably heard about it from someone they trusted. Maybe they’ve seen a video online of someone saying they have the right credentials, are smart, and know the “science.”
Now more than ever, it’s important to be mindful and intentional when interacting with patients, regardless of their level of understanding or the resources they might use. And yes, that includes conspiracy theories and “quack” solutions.
As a result, I was disappointed with how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) job on ivermectin regardless of how the patient understands the drug. By dismissing people’s health concerns about treatments as ridiculous, it doesn’t help convince people to get vaccinated. It’s worth remembering that those who have advocated for alternatives to vaccinations already don’t trust the FDA.
Even with a vaccination mandate, many people must still want to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. One of the best ways to encourage people to get vaccinated is to provide a safe, inclusive, and non-judgmental space to get their questions answered. Despite the challenges, by building relationships with patients and providing factual information, we can build immunity against misinformation.
Image Credit: “Ivermectin” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by focalphoto