Nurse: I'm correcting COVID conspiracy theories inside and outside the health care industry

Katherine Buaron, Opinion contributor
·5 min read

Social media platforms have been instrumental in allowing misinformation and distrust to proliferate, hindering the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic as well as contributing to deeply cut social and political divides, and an insurrection on the Capitol.

As a community nurse in and around Chicago, I have been personally and professionally thrust into the role of social media fact-checker for my patients. I live in the intersection between health care and science and a misinformed public.

I don my often-painful N95 mask, tie my hair back and evaluate patients every day. I field patient questions about microchipped syringes, and offer overly simplified explanations about the bureaucratic logistics of scientific research and vaccine development. In moments I attempt to educate patients on cell biology, immunology and microbiology — subjects I’ve taken years to study.

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While cases and hospitalization of COVID-19 patients have dropped significantly around the country, the threat of infection remains an ever-present reality. Public confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine is improving, but not improving fast enough.

A new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 44% expressed vaccine hesitancy, and among that group, social media was cited as a main source of vaccine information. The poll also found only 31% of respondents said they get “a fair amount of information” from nurses, doctors and other health care providers. While patient education is a central tenet tenant of a nurse’s job, the rampant spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories has made the task more difficult.

Fueling fear and doubt

Recent news demonstrates nurses and doctors are not immune to misinformation. Last December, an Oregon doctor’s license was suspended for refusing to wear a face mask and urging others to follow him. Just last month, four nurses in Kansas refused to administer the vaccine, citing the fast development and production of the shots. These types of actions from trusted medical professionals have only fueled public fear and doubt.

Katherine Buaron in Chicago, in February 2021.
Katherine Buaron in Chicago, in February 2021.

While misinformation remains pervasive in its most nefarious forms online, more innocuous inaccuracies have flourished, too. My Instagram feed is filled with stories and posts from my health care worker friends and colleagues promoting vaccine acceptance and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. My colleagues, many of whom have pursued rigorous years of study and training to become health care workers, frequently repost attractive, clean-lined, millennial-art styled infographics on health promotion and the dangers of COVID-19.

But in the summer of 2020, while swiping through Instagram, I noticed one infographic posted by a nurse colleague. It featured six stylized images of masked and unmasked faces; each face featured a percentage of COVID-19 transmission risk depending on the mask combination. My immediate impulse was to repost it, but the percentages written on the image didn’t seem accurate, so I decided to dig deeper. It took one quick Google search to realize that these percentages — while well intended — had not been verified.

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Studies around health misinformation have often concluded that fear, anxiety and risk perception sway individuals to make instinctive, autonomic decisions about their health and self-protection. The ease with which health care workers can unthinkingly repost and retweet self-affirming health content is enticing and, therefore, extremely dangerous.

For this reason, state medical boards across the nation are taking an active role in impeding misinformation or CDC guideline violations by physicians and other providers with penalty of revoking their license. For instance, at least one hospital forced administrative leave on a nurse who actively flout social distancing guidelines on social media.

Health care workers, do your part

Fear of professional retribution should not be the only thing stopping health care workers from spreading lies and misinformation. In the context of this global pandemic, reposting health misinformation on a whim can be especially dangerous for a trusted medical professional to do.

Whether fair or not, the reality of being a health care worker is to be trusted to make the best decisions for the health of the community, both in our private and public lives. Reposting inaccurate information on social media, no matter how seemingly harmless, can erode public trust and professional credibility.

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There are many resources that exist to do just that, including step-by-step guides on how to distinguish fact from fiction. Among other strategies to recognize fake news, check for spelling errors or consider the information’s effort to appeal to emotions.

It is not uncommon for a friend or family member to connect with me on social media to ask for my medical opinion. I’ve answered questions ranging from what is appropriate footwear for back pain, to precautions to take if someone in the household has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

For better or for worse, social media has the potential to intertwine private and professional lives. For this reason, nurses, doctors and other health care workers must truly scrutinize health information that they perpetuate online.

This is more than a caveat to think before you post.

The ability to discern what is and isn’t credible on social media is a necessary tool for navigating today’s digital world. Understanding the gravity of misinformation is the crucial first step in establishing personal and professional accountability for what is posted online.

For a health care worker, failure to fact-check a post on social media can not only result in professional penalties, but can also mean life or death.

Katherine Buaron, RN, has a Master of Science in Nursing and is a community health registered nurse at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID conspiracy theories are easy to spread, even for medical workers