Medical ethics in the age of the social media influencers

Facebook

(Con Karampelas, Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Sonica Minhas, a second-year medical student in London interested in maternal and infant health, nutrition, climate change, human rights and healthcare policymaking. She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.


This millennium has witnessed the exponential growth of social media and over the last few years, increasing numbers of doctors and medical students are using it, both personally and professionally. In fact, we are now entering an era where the doctors qualifying are those that have grown up with the epoch of the digital age.

Debate is rife on the ethical standards to which doctors and medical students should be held to on social media but in general there is consensus that professional boundaries and patient confidentiality must be maintained. Organisations also state that personalised healthcare mustn’t be delivered over social media. However, there is far less guidance on the use of social media for public health promotion by medical professionals.

Indeed, social media is a powerful platform for spreading public health messages to the wider masses and a purpose that many doctors/students use it for. However, it is absolutely imperative that in such cases professionals are held to the same standards as they would be at say a conference, for example. I’m talking about ensuring that evidence-base standards are maintained.

This is becoming increasingly pertinent with the rise of so-called “influencers” who often blog about health (in particular nutrition) but end up spreading erroneous information. Under this umbrella unfortunately are also some doctors but we absolutely do not need them contributing to the noise, since that qualifier of doctor means that their message is perceived to be of greater credibility.

Earlier this year, a study by the University of Glasgow revealed that the majority of influencers are giving inaccurate dietary advice. Of the nine influencer’s blogs that were analysed against 12 criterions (based on national dietary guidelines etc.), only one- a registered nutritionist- passed. Amongst those that failed was a medical doctor, exemplifying that doctors must be held to the same scientifically and medically justified principles that they are in practice when handing out health-related advice.

A doctor is most certainly not limited by their level of education; if they have qualified, they have the competency to critically analyse scientific literature thus any information they present should be backed up with references where appropriate. This is something that must be instilled within medical students; the concept of adhering to science when posting about health.

One way to do this may be to scour platforms for examples of doctors who blog about health and get students to discuss in small groups who they would say is providing the most accurate, objective and scientifically-sound information and how those that aren’t could improve their content. In this way, students are exposed to examples of good and poor social media usage for health promotion.

As Aristotle put it, humans do not care for facts; they care for ethos, logos and pathos. Thus, how information is presented, i.e. the language that is used, is absolutely critical. This is why I believe medical schools must pave way to include development of scientific writing skills within their curricula.

To some this may seem entirely unnecessary but I would argue given that more and more of us are creating and sharing content online, it is needed. Medical professionals when spreading health messages online must adopt a sombre, professional tone that is as unbiased and objective as possible.

By learning how to write scientifically in medical school, students will learn the importance of avoiding emotive language and hyperboles because this introduces personal bias in the form of opinion which may be cloaked as fact, that ultimately can be misleading or flawed.

“Primum non nocere” (“first do no harm”)-the Hippocratic maxim matters as much in digital life as it does in real life and that is something we must not forget.

One of the core principles of the medical profession is integrity. Medical students must be taught that integrity is to be practiced on social media, the same way it is elsewhere. Often there is a fear to speak out against a point made by a fellow medical professional/student made on social media but this shouldn’t be the case.

If we think something said by a fellow student or doctor on social media to be incorrect (be it the actual information or the way in which it is fashioned), we shouldn’t shy away from perhaps contacting them directly to say so or by creating a space for discussion and debate; this is how science progresses after all.

Simply because they say or do something on social media out of good intentions does not mean we can let slip the fact that their content may be inaccurate; for that there is no defence, especially for a medically qualified doctor. Being in a position of public responsibility, doctors are, and rightfully so, subject to scrutiny which mustn’t change in the digital age.

When used responsibly, social media is an impeccably powerful tool for public health promotion. With many doctors using it for this purpose, medical institutions and governing bodies for the medical profession must convene to develop guidelines on the ethical usage of social media for public health purposes. It may seem impossible but we must continue to push for standards to which health professionals should conform to when they use their expertise on social media.

About the author

Sonica Minhas is a second-year medical student in London interested in maternal and infant health, nutrition, climate change, human rights and healthcare policymaking. Her interests in global health stem from doing a project on the extortionately high caesarean section rates in countries like China and Brazil. It was then that she realised that as well as practicing medicine, she wants to provide a voice to the vulnerable members of our population by advocating for changes to education and healthcare policies. She’s currently expanding her horizons and exploring her interests by being on the committee of her medical school’s Students for Global Health branch and the nutrition society. She believes that as doctors we have a responsibility to share our opinions on matters that concern health and that we must be leaders for the changes needed in our healthcare systems to tackle threats to public health and the issues establishing health inequities.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

EU should promote immigration as a humanitarian issue in order to provide a more permanent solution

Alarming number of Ebola deaths in DRC a ‘rallying cry’ to scale up treatment

How communities are dealing with economy, society and education in COVID-19 crisis     

EU announces record €550 million contribution to save 16 million lives from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria

UN celebrates books as ‘bridges across cultures’

Paris, Washington, IMF against Berlin and ECB on money and interest

Earthquake: Monte Dei Paschi Di Siena

Europe led by Germany seems vulnerable to Trump’s threats

These Harvard scientists think we’ll have to socially distance until 2022

Bridging the gap: Health through technology

How people without running water can wash their hands

3 leaders on creating a pipeline for female talent in business

Scientists studied microbes feeding on Antarctica’s first methane leak – here’s what they found

Concerned over Haiti’s political crisis, Guterres promises ‘continuous commitment’

Lockdown is the world’s biggest psychological experiment – and we will pay the price

Ukrainian civil war: Is this the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

E-Governance: A powerful tool to combat, mitigate and sustainably manage disaster risks

No recovery for EU economy in sight and a Brexit can aggravate things for everyone

The importance of Yellow September and suicide prevention in Brazil

Libya: UN mobilized to support thousands uprooted by Tripoli clashes, renews call for humanitarian truce

GSMA announces first speakers for Mobile 360 Series-Middle East and North Africa

‘From farm to plate’, first-ever World Food Safety Day demonstrates the need to take unsafe food off the menu

Personalized healthcare and better population health? Here’s how digital can help achieve that

LGBTQI+ and medicine, in the Land of the Pure

ECB settles the bank resolution issue, makes banking union tangible

Tackling Youth Unemployment

This New York store is selling Christmas presents for refugees

World Food Day: here’s what the UN is doing to fix ‘intolerable’ wrong of hunger

GDP growth slows in most G20 economies in third quarter of 2019

The US will impose tariffs on Mexico, says President Trump

ECB to people: Not responsible if you lose money on Bitcoin, your governments are

We must help developing countries escape commodity dependence

EU to manage external borders against the will of member states; Greece to be the first target

US-China trade war: Washington now wants control of the renminbi-yuan

Commission reports on progress made by Albania and North Macedonia

Renewable energy can get India’s returned rural migrants back to work

There is a way for Eurozone to reach a sustainable growth path

How robotics can help humanitarians bridge the digital divide

EU budget: Making the EU fit for its role as strong global actor

To Fight the Pandemic, Put Trust and Cooperation Before Politics

More funding needed to combat locust swarms ‘unprecedented in modern times’

Still recovering from devastating cyclones, Mozambique, in UN address, warns of global warming’s ‘nefarious consequences’

Climate adaptation could make the world more peaceful

6 things to know about the General Assembly as UN heads into high level week

How much time has the ‘European Union of last chance’ left?

UN Security Council ‘utterly failed’ Syrian detainees; a victim voices her plea to ‘end impunity and stop this horror’

‘12 million’ stateless people globally, warns UNHCR chief in call to States for decisive action

Health privatisation: reviving Alma-Ata

Coronavirus update: UN scales back major conference

Burning Amazon rainforests: Darting towards the doom of Human Race

Kors and Nyong’o: Food, fashion and film join forces at UN, for the world’s hungry

Brexit: Ensuring a smooth transition for car producers and safety on the roads

Fighting for minds of youth in Latvia

How private investment can boost education access and quality in the digital economy

MasterCard at European Business Summit 2015: A focus on innovation will drive inclusive economic growth for Europe

How to accelerate digital literacy in the enterprise world

2016 crisis update: the year of the Red Fire Monkey burns the world’s markets down

MEPs propose ways to boost plastics recycling

Raw materials use to double by 2060 with severe environmental consequences

Where is Egypt leading the Middle East and the Mediterranean economy?

More Stings?

Advertising

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s