Misinformation on social media threatens healthcare reform: @CMA_Docs president

Dr. Katharine Smart

Widespread dissemination of misinformation about healthcare on social media is threatening the capacity of Canadians to transform and improve how healthcare is delivered.

That is why Canadian physicians have an obligation and not an option to be active on social media platforms.

This statement was made by Canadian Medical Association (@CMA_Docs) President Dr. Katharine Smart (@KatharineSmart) at the Canadian Conference on Physician Leaders held recently in-person in Toronto. It represents one of the most high profile and strongest statements supporting physician involvement on social media made to date in Canada.

It was probably no coincidence that the #CCPL2022 hashtag was used extensively by physicians and others throughout the two-day meeting – and beyond – with both those in attendance and many others remotely commenting on and retweeting proceedings.

In her address, Dr. Smart singled out as an emerging threat to healthcare “the ineffectiveness of traditional communication tactics in a social media world, the rising threat of misinformation, a loss of trust with experts, and increasing polarization even amongst experts themselves.” She added “I think these issues threaten not only health, but pose fundamental threats to our democracy and civil discourse.”

Dr. Smart asked how physician leaders and physician organizations can compete in this new environment. “Our traditional press conferences are really no match for a well done Tiktoc video or Instagram story. Social media has become the source of information and truth for many people, youth and adults.”

“One of the lessons we’ve learned through the pandemic has been around the critical role of health communication, how much we struggled to do well, and how powerful the misinformation movement can be,” she continued.

“I think we need to recognise that social media is where we’ve evolved in terms of our community gatherings or town halls and how we distribute information and communicate with each other. If we don’t evolve and show a presence on social media to educate and impart our knowledge about health, medicine, science to the public, and even things about the health system itself, other less qualified non medical individuals will.” Dr. Smart said the CMA has made a conscious effort as part of its modernization process to become more involved and engaged on social media and has a result garners millions of impressions monly across its social media platforms.

However, with more physicians and other healthcare providers speaking out and advocating on social media, Dr. Smart acknowledged the number of personal attacks and abuse has risen. At the CCPL last year, past CMA president Dr. Gigi Osler and gun control advocate Dr. Najma Ahmed gave a workshop on just how to deal with this abuse.

Dr. Smart showed a word map demonstrating it is the most emotive words on Twitter that create the most engagement. “I believe that this is driving polarization and can negatively impact information sharing and discourse. People that are yelling are often getting the most attention and the people that actually have productive things to say … don’t always stand out in these spaces.”

She told physicians that “angry advocacy” is not the way to go and that physicians must work to counter the current “infodemic” that “threatens to disrupt and undermine our work.”