The Importance of Owning Our Story: What healthcare social media can learn from the Japan nuclear catastrophe

A month ago, when the experts were still trying to decide what really was going to happen as a result of the nuclear plant damage in Japan, a blog post by Dr. Oehman, an MIT scientist, went viral saying that “there was and will not be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors.” Not only was Dr. Oehman wrong, he wasn’t even a physicist. In fact, the “blog post” was adapted from a private email he sent to his cousin living in Japan to reassure him that he did not need to fly back to Australia.

Health care providers on the internet need to learn from this experience and own their story. The public wanted to hear a clear and thorough explanation from an expert on the issue, and at the time the blog post went live, it was one of the only such explanations available. In social psychology, it’s been shown that people’s perceptions of speaker bias affect how much they believe the speaker. If the speaker goes along with the bias expected given his or her background or profession, people are less likely to believe what they are saying because they attribute his arguments to factors other than authentic belief in their truth. Since Dr. Oehman was originally thought to be a physicist and since his report went against what other physicists were saying at the time, people were even more convinced by it than if he had repeated the general consensus.

In healthcare, such reports by underqualified speakers or worse yet, credentialed but untrustworthy speakers are even more commonplace. That is why doctors that want the public to really have accurate information about their health need to create content. We need to make sure that the correct information is out there so that people don’t turn to misinformation due to lack of information about their particular health issue.

Furthermore, in order to maintain a believable and authentic personality, physicians need to carefully maintain their online profiles, avoid associations with industry and other ulterior motives and establish themselves as a trustworthy source of healthcare information. Individually, our reach may not exceed that of Dr. Oz, but together, I have confidence that the healthcare social media space has the capability to do some serious work towards debunking health misinformation.

*Photo Credit: *Salon