Coronavirus Docs Battle One other Scourge: Misinformation

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Coronavirus Doctors Battle Another Scourge: Misinformation

An Illinois emergency doctor was charged in April of profiting from naming coronavirus as a patient's cause of death, a rumor that spreads online.

In May, an internist in New York treated a vomiting patient who was drinking a bleach mixture as part of a bogus virus regimen found on YouTube.

And in June a paramedic in the UK helped a clearly ill man who refused to go to hospital after reading misleading warnings on social media about poor treatment for coronavirus.

Doctors on the front lines of the global pandemic say they are not only battling coronavirus, but increasingly fighting an endless scourge of misinformation about the disease that is hurting patients.

Before the pandemic, medical professionals had become used to dealing with patients who were misled by online information, a phenomenon that Dr. Google called. However, in interviews, more than a dozen doctors and misinformation researchers in the US and Europe said the volume associated with the virus was unlike anything they had seen before. They accused leaders like President Trump of expanding marginal theories, not doing enough to eradicate false information, and individuals being too quick to believe what they see online.

Last week, researchers said that at least 800 people worldwide died and thousands more were hospitalized in the first three months of the year, due to unsubstantiated online claims that ingesting highly concentrated alcohol would kill the virus. Their findings, based on rumors circulating on the Internet, were published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Doctors' frustrations fill Facebook groups and online forums. The American Medical Association and other groups representing doctors say that the misrepresentation of information on the Internet affects public health responses to the disease. The World Health Organization is developing methods to measure the damage caused by virus-related misinformation online. In July, the group hosted an online conference with doctors, public health experts, and internet researchers over two weeks to address the problem.

Doctors say that patients regularly defy their advice and are more likely to believe what they read on Facebook than what a doctor tells them. The falsehoods, it is said, have undermined efforts to induce people to wear masks and fueled the belief that the severity of the disease is exaggerated. Some doctors say they face abuse by participating in online discussions to correct the record.

"This is no longer just an anecdotal observation made by a few individual doctors," said Daniel Allington, a lecturer at King's College London and co-author of a recent study that found people sharing their messages online rather than receiving on radio or television, were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and not follow public health guidelines. "This is a statistically significant pattern that we can see in a large survey."

Dr. Howard Mell, an emergency doctor in suburban St. Louis, Illinois, said the wife of a man who died of the coronavirus in April accused him of falsely filling out the death certificate in order to make more money for himself . He stated that the form was correct and that his salary was not based on the cause of death.

"She yelled," We saw you guys get more money online, "said Dr. Mell.

The situation has not improved since then, he said. Several times a week he meets someone who believes false medical information has been discovered online.

"It's absolutely become a job in itself," said Dr. Mell, who is also spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, a group that represents E.R. doctors.

Some doctors say they get into an argument with patients demanding prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine, the unproven drug championed by Mr. Trump. In some hospitals, people have requested a doctor's letter so that they don't have to wear a mask while at work believing it will damage their oxygen levels, another rumor online.

"Now the numbers are back up and I feel like a lot has to do with things on social media. It's not a big deal and we don't have to take all of these steps," said Dr. David Welsh, an Indiana surgeon who has treated coronavirus patients, refers to a recent surge of infections in his area.

Online platforms like Facebook and YouTube, owned by Google, have put in place guidelines to limit coronavirus misinformation and improve information from trusted sources like the World Health Organization. This month, Facebook and Twitter removed a post from Mr. Trump's re-election campaign that falsely claimed that children would not get coronavirus.

"We both got rid of harmful false claims and referred people to authoritative information," Facebook said in a statement. The company, which held a call to doctors in June to raise their concerns, said it had removed more than seven million virus misinformation and added millions of warning labels.

YouTube said it was "committed to providing timely and helpful information related to Covid-19" and has removed more than 200,000 dangerous or misleading videos.

But untrue information continues to spread. In the past month, a video was viewed millions of times by a group of people who call themselves America's Frontline Doctors. Misleading claims have been shared about the virus, including the fact that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for coronavirus and that masks do not slow the spread of the virus.

The scale of the problem led to a report from the UK Parliament last month that contributed to calls for stricter laws against the country's largest social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.

Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency doctor in Kentucky, said a number of sick patients waited until it was almost too late to visit a hospital because they were convinced by what they read online that Covid-19 was fake or "Not big" is a deal. "

"They thought it was just a trick, a deception, a conspiracy," recalled Dr. Stanton. "I was just blown away that you can put on those blinkers and ignore the facts."

Thomas Knowles, a paramedic in the UK, said a person refused to be admitted in June after reading that hospitals were making his condition worse. The incident worried Mr. Knowles so much that he searched for virus-related misinformation on social media, where he came across false claims, such as doctors taking people's blood for research and then letting them die.

"Personally, I have never met such a strong, consistent – and so clearly coordinated from somewhere – collective of people who are so deeply rooted in their false beliefs," said Knowles.

Some doctors in cities like New York said the number of patients who believed in misinformation declined as the disease hit their area. But it remained a worrying trend.

Dr. Parinda Warikarn, who works at Elmhurst Hospital Center in New York, said the patient who took bleach after seeing the mock treatment on YouTube came to the hospital with severe abdominal pain.

"He clearly really believed he would prevent Covid," she said. "Fortunately, his wife and two young children didn't choose that solution."

A growing fear is that vaccine conspiracy theories could undermine eventual vaccination efforts, said Dr. John Wright from the Bradford Institute for Health Research in England.

"Social media brings a lot of great things with it, but it also provides a platform to sow the seeds of doubt, and that's exactly what happened," he said.

Dr. Wright recalled that Congolese immigrants believed a social media rumor that Covid-19 was a government ploy to deport them and that other members of the Indian community cited posts about doctors intentionally infecting patients. A hospital nurse complained on Facebook about people posting names and pictures of health workers accusing them of letting patients die.

Dr. Mell, the doctor in Illinois, regularly encounters abuse by Facebook users for pushing back incorrect information. But he believes that the effort is necessary to prevent the spread of falsehoods.

"Doctors need to keep telling the truth as loudly as possible," he said. "People need to hear it."

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