CHICAGO — Patients have long been told to turn to their doctors for accurate and reliable health information.
But in recent years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors’ voices have sometimes been drowned out by social media users spreading misinformation around the world, leading patients to make questionable choices, and sometimes dangerous to their health.
Now, a Chicago medical school is offering a new course aimed at better equipping doctors and other healthcare professionals to speak up: a course on how to combat medical misinformation. The University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine began offering the course to medical students last year and recently developed a condensed version for nurses preparing for their doctorate, pharmacy residents and medical students. seniors.
“We’re basically trying to make it a fair fight,” said Sara Serritella, one of the teachers, who is also communications director for the UC Institute for Translational Medicine. “As we’ve seen during the pandemic, this whole crisis of having to communicate science in a way that builds trust can literally be life or death.”
The class is one of the first of its kind in a US medical school. Despite being born out of the pandemic, Dr. Vineet Arora, who teaches the class with Serritella, said misinformation in medicine extends far beyond COVID.
“As we think about the future and with the re-emergence of things like polio, we need to make sure that we teach the healthcare professionals of tomorrow how to approach things in a way that reaches the public where they are.” said Arora, who is dean of medical education at the medical school and co-founder of the Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team, an advocacy group for medical professionals.
Recently, Serritella, a former journalist, taught the Zoom class how to hold an audience’s attention. The lecture, at times, sounded like what might be taught in a beginner’s journalism class. Arora and Serritella teach students how to hone their communication skills to help them dispel health myths.
Serritella, her eyes wide and her voice full of energy, told the students to connect emotionally with their audience, to tell a story rather than just telling facts, and to lead with the most interesting part. She told them to be “surgically precise” when choosing their words, cutting out jargon.
Students then spent the second half of the class in small groups, brainstorming which myths to address for each of their projects. Dr. Eve Bloomgarden, an endocrinologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem and co-founder of IMPACT who also works with the class, helped the students refine their ideas. At the end of the course, students are expected to produce an infographic that they can share with patients or online that dispels a healthcare myth.
When the course was first offered last year, many students chose to tackle COVID-related myths.
An infographic from a previous lesson features a drawing of a bird in a tree asking, “Should I get the COVID shot if I already had COVID-19?” In the following frames, other birds explain, in simple speech bubbles of one or two sentences, why people who have already been infected should still get vaccinated.
Another student from a rural community made an infographic on ivermectin, a drug that some people believe could be used to treat COVID-19 but has not been shown to be safe or effective for this purpose . She decided to focus on ivermectin after hearing about people in her community using it, Serritella said.
Another student echoed the myth that people should eliminate sugar from their diet. “Did you know that sugars and carbohydrates are important for health, but too much can be harmful?” the student asked in the infographic.
An infographic focused on registering to become an organ donor. “Being an organ donor will not affect your own care if you are sick,” he said.
Sophomore medical student Maeson Zietowski has produced an infographic dispelling myths about gender-affirming hormonal care.
He wrote in his infographic that the use of puberty blockers – drugs that can be used to temporarily suppress puberty in transgender and gender non-conforming children – can “give families time to explore the gender of their child and gather information without causing distress to the child” which can sometimes be brought on by puberty. He wrote that “if stopped, puberty will normally resume according to sex assigned at birth”.
Zietowski said the class taught him that there are many resources to help healthcare professionals express themselves in an engaging way. Many students have used the free Canva program to produce their infographics.
“I think people count themselves because they think they don’t have the design skills or don’t feel confident in what they post, or don’t think their voice should be the voice that says that,” Zietowski said. .
Naomi Tesema, a third-year medical student who worked on COVID vaccine infographics and worked with the class, said it’s important for future doctors to understand how to communicate with patients and communities, especially those who may have been marginalized.
Tesema, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia, said some patients may not trust the health system because they don’t see themselves represented there, they haven’t been taken seriously by doctors or come from groups that have been abused, as in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, in which black men with the disease went untreated for years.
She said she used the skills she learned from making the infographics to speak with family members, friends and patients at the free clinics where she worked.
“We have to be able to communicate with people, and we have to be able to establish a way for them to trust us,” Tesema said.
Dr. Andrea Anderson, senior medical education consultant with the Association of American Medical Colleges, said she hopes more medical schools will offer similar courses in the future. The University of Chicago Medical School now offers the course to pharmacists and nurses under a grant it received from the association, with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is one of five medical schools that received the grant to fight medical misinformation, with other schools embarking on different types of projects, such as using actors to help students practice their communication skills or developing online training videos, Anderson said.
“I would say medical misinformation is one of the biggest problems facing medicine today,” Anderson said. “It’s our job as medical educators to ensure these trainees are better equipped with the skills they need to communicate with patients during these very difficult times.”