Scientists are learning more about COVID-19 every day. Unfortunately, they're up against a flood of misinformation.
The deluge of false information related to COVID-19 has been called an "infodemic" by the World Health Organization. It's a difficult problem to address, as healthcare professionals and others combat rumors, confusion over rapidly evolving guidelines and malicious actors trying to take advantage of gaps in knowledge for their own gain, such as selling fake cures.
Hospitals can play an important role in addressing that challenge by disseminating trusted, reliable information, said Tom Bauer, senior director of patient and family education at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. "It's a very important responsibility of an organization like ours," he said.
Here are four things healthcare leaders suggest keeping in mind to address COVID-19 misinformation and educate patients.
1. Keep it simple. Johns Hopkins Medicine has published webpages that breaking down common COVID-19 myths and teach patients how to spot misinformation. The health system knew the information on those pages had to be factually accurate based on scientific evidence, and be digestible for a general audience, Bauer said.
"Health information is sometimes very difficult to understand," particularly when it comes to details of a new disease, Bauer said. "We spend a lot of time taking advanced science and trying to make it understandable."
That means explaining terms like "social distancing" in plain language—Bauer said his team tries to create educational materials at a 5th- to 9th-grade reading level—as well as using formats like frequently asked questions or infographics, which can keep a reader's attention focused on "need-to-know" information.
It's also important to include links to references in educational materials, so patients know where to check for more recent information, said Beverly Belton, a field director for the hospital and nursing care center programs at the Joint Commission. "Having a stagnant document isn't useful, because that information gets old," she said.
2. Social media can be a tool. Social media has been tied to the proliferation of misinformation, but it can be a friend, hospital executives say.
In March, executives at St. Luke's Health System in Kansas City, Mo., were shocked to discover a memo circulating online claiming that alcohol consumption would reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. The claim had no scientific backing and the memo purported to come from St. Luke's, despite health system executives having never seen it before.
St. Luke's took to social media to clarify that the memo wasn't from the health system and contained inaccurate information, a tactic it's continued to use as COVID-19 cases have continued to mount in the U.S., said Dr. Melinda Estes, the health system's president and CEO. St. Luke's continues to post a variety of content related to masks, social distancing and hand washing on its social media pages.
"We've used videos, we've used graphics, we've used interviews (with experts), we've put the CDC data out there," she said.
3. Experiment with new resources. Mount Sinai Health System in New York City this month announced an agreement with NewsGuard, a startup that assigns credibility ratings to news and information websites. As part of the partnership, Mount Sinai is offering patients and staff free access to a browser extension from the company that specifically rates websites that cover health topics.
The project aims to close a gap in information that the health system noticed while treating patients at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York. In the spring, much of Mount Sinai's communications department was redeployed to focus on an emergency communications command center, where they developed daily educational materials for staff, patients and the public, said John Davey, Mount Sinai's vice president of marketing technology.
"When we were doing our research for all this content, we saw there was so much misinformation (and) disinformation out there," he said. Mount Sinai's still figuring out how to ensure the NewsGuard plug-in will work for all patients, even if they're using an older internet browser, so they haven't sent emails alerting patients and staff about the new resource yet.
4. Hospital staff are a source of information, too. While educational campaigns can help combat misinformation, hospital executives should empower staff to feel confident educating the community. As part of that effort, St. Luke's has made infection prevention staff and physicians available for interviews with local news media to discuss how to reduce infection risks, Estes said.
Nurses, whom Americans consistently rank as the most trusted profession in polls, can be especially impactful here, according to Belton.
"When patients are in the hospital, they spend the majority of their time with nurses," she said. "It's important for hospitals to ensure that their nurses have the latest and correct information."
Belton suggested hospitals designate a set of experts with backgrounds in infection prevention and infectious disease to keep track of COVID-19 developments, who are tasked with serving as a clearinghouse for this information and developing ways to share noteworthy new findings and guidelines to providers, so everyone's up to date.
It can also help to provide clinicians with talking points related to COVID-19, said Jean-Luc Vezina, a nurse surveyor for the behavioral health and human services programs at the Joint Commission, so that they feel more confident talking to patients about the disease.