Robert Bautista: Tackling Health Misinformation

by | May 22, 2021 | 122, Doctor, Medicine, Top Doctors of the Week | 0 comments

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) hits the United States—and the rest of the world, like a storm, in early 2020. Within that period, governments of different countries had to issue strict precautionary measures to break the chain of infection and deaths. Countries like China limited viral spread by enforcing early and thorough lockdowns, other countries, including the United States, France, Italy, and Spain, were heavily hit. At the time of writing, the pandemic accounts for at least 135 million infections and about 3 million deaths globally. Because of the confusion surrounding the advent of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), a novel coronavirus that triggers COVID-19, misinformation about the virus, its origins, and successful prevention and treatment methods spread rapidly. The World Health Organization (WHO) developed and distributed shareable infographics that dispel unique misconceptions about COVID-19 as part of its campaign to spread scientific knowledge over misinformation. However, the effectiveness of health agency websites intended to refute misconceptions has produced inconsistent findings in research.

Dr. Robert Bautista, who is presently doing his postdoctoral fellowship at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Information, is no slouch when tackling health misinformation on social media. Dr. Bautista has always been interested in public health, leading him to take a master’s program in public health. He then realized that information and communications technologies have a crucial role in promoting public health, leading him to take a Ph.D. in communication science at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Over the years, he has done various research on how technology, ranging from smartphones to social media, influences the work of healthcare professionals in the field.

“I got into this field when I was collecting data in the Philippines for my Ph.D. thesis. I observed that nurses used their smartphones to communicate and pass vital information to their coworkers and their patients. To some extent, patients may ask nurses with health information and, in some cases, these questions relate to health misinformation found on the Internet.” After completing my Ph.D., I applied for fellowships that would allow me to start research on health misinformation. Fortunately, I was granted the Bullard Research Fellowship by UT Austin’s School of Information. Currently, my research focuses on how healthcare professionals correct health misinformation on social media.”

Initially, Dr. Bautista’s research did not focus on COVID-19; however, he had to rethink his priorities with it being a pandemic. ‘There was much misinformation surrounding COVID-19, like how the virus spreads, how the virus started, and what medications will help in treating COVID-19.”

On the effect of the pandemic on his research, “The Pandemic affected my research. I couldn’t interview key healthcare professionals in person due to social distancing measures. So all interviews had to be done online via Zoom or Skype. Initially, the interviews were challenging because they were not face-to-face; I quickly got into the groove because the technology provided the convenience of collecting data at home. That also meant not having to travel at all for research, and that reduced my risk of having COVID.”

Trends Set by the Pandemic

“Although COVID-19 has its consequences,” said Dr. Bautista, “there are also some silver linings that occurred throughout my research. For example, researchers became more innovative and explored other avenues of data collection. The key benefits include greater adherence to safety measures, lesser travel time, and the availability of many participants to communicate online since most are at home.”

Are the Trends Here to Stay?

“Yes, they will.” He says. “Until the country reaches herd immunity and daily cases are much lower.” But we suspect that the world is prepared to communicate intimately beyond herd immunity without much physical contact. In December, the CEO of Twitter and Slack told all employees of both companies that they can work remotely forever. Dr. Bautista insists that “We will still have to stick to this kind of setup for the next two years.” The delay in reaching herd immunity is because of logistical challenges (low vaccine supply and poor distribution), resulting in the delay of vaccinating adults. Besides, vaccine trials for individuals under the age of 16 are still in progress and may take about a year before completion.

The Misinformation Surrounding Vaccination

Dr. Bautista is “hopeful that trials reach completion by the end of the year regarding child vaccination. As a result, those under the age of 16 can receive the vaccine in December, similar to what happened in 2020.”

“The main challenge is the expected hesitancy from parents. It would always be an issue if some children who can think for themselves want to get vaccinated, but the parents are hesitant. Enrollment into vaccine trials for children has also been tougher than enrollment for adults because you need parents’ permission. Parents are much more anxious to subject their children to clinical trials. The time needed to conduct trials for children is longer when compared to adults, and hesitancy often comes from misinformation. Some adults do not want the vaccine because they think it’s a death trap. However, COVID vaccines “greatly reduce your chance of being severely hospitalized and dying from COVID.” “We’re using science to combat COVID-19 through vaccines. We use science to explore other worlds like Mars, and that’s because of science, and in the future, we can set our feet on Mars.” “Eventually, with vaccines, we can reach herd immunity to the extent that people will not die from COVID.” Dr. Bautista says.

We understand the negative implications of misinformation and how it can lead to social distress. With social media, spreading fake news and unverified claims is easy. During the heat of the global pandemic, absurd news and claims were fabricated and spread. Many people kicked against some of the guidelines released by the WHO, and some organizations, and even governments, were quick to justify recklessness towards the pandemic using unverified data sources. “Did China deliberately orchestrate the spread of COVID19? Does chloroquine effectively cure the virus? Must you always wear a face mask and use a hand sanitizer?” Many fingers wagged at China; some doctors and reputable politicians claimed that chloroquine could help defeat the virus; others claimed that face masks and sanitizers were a waste of investment in the campaign against the pandemic. Where do you get your news? When you spread fake news, you fuel a system that can lead to property damage and deaths. So always think and verify before you share information on social media.

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