Big problem for medicine
The University of Chicago offers lessons to counter misinformation
CHICAGO (TNS) – Patients have long been asked 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 flooded by social media users blasting misinformation around the world, leading patients to make questionable, and sometimes dangerous, choices about their health.
Now, a Chicago medical school is offering a new class that aims to better equip doctors and other medical professionals to be heard: a course on how to fight medical misinformation. The University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine began offering the semester to medical students last year and has recently developed an intensive version for doctoral nurses, pharmacy residents and senior medical students.
“We’re trying to make it a fundamentally fair fight,” said Sarah Ceretella, one of the trainers, who also serves as communications director for the University of California Institute of Multilingual Medicine. “As we’ve seen during the pandemic, this whole crisis of having to communicate science in a way that builds trust can be life or death.”
This class is the first of its kind at an American medical school. Although it stemmed from the pandemic, Dr. Vineet Arora, who is studying the class with Serritella, said misinformation in medicine extends far beyond COVID-19.
“When we think about the future and the re-emergence of things like polio, we need to make sure that we teach the health professionals of tomorrow how to handle things in a way that reaches the public where they are,” said Arora, who is the dean of medical education at the College of Medicine and co-founder of the Illinois Medical Team. Action Professionals Collaborative (IMPACT), a group of medical professionals.
On a recent day, Ceretella, a former reporter, taught a Zoom class how to get the audience’s attention. The lecture, at times, is similar to what would be taught at the beginning of a journalism class. Arora and Seretella teach students to hone their communication skills to help them dispel health myths.
Ciritila, with her wide eyes and a voice full of energy, asked the students to connect emotionally with their audiences, telling a story rather than just bringing up the facts and doing the most interesting part. I told them to be “surgically accurate” when choosing their words, cutting out jargon.
The students then spent the second half of the class in small groups, brainstorming about myths that should be addressed in 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 students refine their ideas. By the end of the course, students are supposed to produce a graph that they can share with patients or online, dispelling the healthcare myth.
The first time the course was offered last year, many students chose to address the myths about COVID-19.
One diagram from a previous class shows a drawing of a bird perched on a tree asking, “Should I get a COVID shot if I already have COVID-19?” In the following frames, other birds explain, in simple bubbles of one or two sentences, why the vaccination of already infected people should continue.
Another student from a rural community made an infographic about ivermectin, a drug that some people believe can be used to treat COVID-19 but has not been shown to be safe or effective for this purpose. Ceretella said she decided to focus on ivermectin after hearing about people in her community using it.
Another student embraced the myth that people should cut out sugar from their diets. “Did you know that sugars and carbohydrates are important for health, but excessive amounts of either can be harmful?” Ask the student in the infographic.
One of the charts focused on registering to be an organ donor. “Being an organ donor will not affect your care if you are sick,” she said.
Sophomore medical student Mason Zitowski has produced an infographic to dispel myths about sex-stress hormone nurturing.
He wrote in his infographic that the use of puberty blockers – drugs that can be used to temporarily suppress puberty in transgender and gender-nonconforming children – can “give families time to explore their child’s gender and gather information without causing distress to the child” which can Sometimes at puberty. “If it is stopped, puberty will resume as normal as the sex specified at birth,” he wrote.
Zietowski said the class taught him that there are many resources to help medical professionals speak in engaging ways. Many students have used the free software Canva to produce their own infographics.
“I think people count themselves because they think they don’t have the design skills or they don’t feel confident in what they’re offering, or they don’t think their voice should be the voice that says this,” Zitovsky said.
Naomi Tessema, a third-year medical student who has worked on infographics about COVID-19 vaccines and worked with the class, said it’s important for future clinicians to understand how to connect 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 care system because they don’t see themselves represented in it, are not taken seriously by doctors or belong to abused groups, as in the Tuskegee syphilis study. Notorious, black men with the disease went untreated for years.
She said she used the skills she learned while making graphs to talk with family members, friends, and patients at the free clinics where she worked.
“We have to be able to connect with people, and we have to be able to find a way for them to trust us,” Tesema said.
Dr. Andrea Anderson, senior medical education advisor for the Association of American Medical Colleges, said she hopes more medical schools will offer similar classes in the future. The University of Chicago School of Medicine is now offering the semester to pharmacists and nurses as part of a grant it received from the association, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Anderson said it’s one of five medical schools that have received a grant to tackle medical misinformation, with other colleges embarking on different types of projects, such as using actors to help students practice their communication skills, or developing online training videos.
“I would say medical misinformation is one of the biggest problems facing medicine today,” Anderson said. “Our job as medical educators is to make sure that these trainees are better equipped with the skills they need to communicate with patients during these very challenging times.”
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