The hazards of doctoring in public

A doctor on Naija Twitter today was advising folks to stop their meds.

Two antihypertensive drugs had been recalled by a company on account of unacceptable risk levels, and my colleague, instead of advising folks on such meds to talk to their doctors, chose rather to counsel simply stopping the meds, period - irrespective of brand.

In so doing, he fell off a tightrope many of us medical pros online must navigate daily: the delicate balance of expressing useful info in a way that catches attention.

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The thing is, "useful" is relative. I see how he was aiming to be useful. But I see how he was potentially being plenty harmful, too.

What the doc did is like telling a child who hates veggies that they can go bad and cause the runs. It's true, but it's not useful - and the child is going to end up feeling justified to avoid something they never wanted anyway, even though it's actually good for them.

It's like screaming at the crowd in a cinema on fire to rush out: yes, there's a fire, but stoking panic like that causes more harm than good, and more people are likely to get hurt than if you'd really worked at calming them first.

There's truth, and there's HELPFUL truth.

If there's one thing you learn as a doctor, especially a doctor online, it's that it's not enough to be truthful. It's just as important to be sensitive to the person you're being truthful to.

That's why you don't just dump diagnoses on people.

Also why it's not good medical practice to sensationalise.

It's not enough merely to be truthful. It's just as important to be helpful with the truth. Or else what's the point?

Yes, it's tricky being a doctor in public - it's not like it's taught to us in our med schools, despite the now longstanding reality of social media. But not even social media excuses us from our guiding ethics - the axiom, "First, do no harm," holds still.

That said, one must endeavour to learn from mistakes, and preferably those of others. So, my learning points in all this?

  1. Learning to get and hold attention is a skill worth honing, and all the more when you actually have useful info on offer.
  2. When in doubt, though, err on the side of simple truth, and when you do outright err (as you almost inevitably will), own it, apologise meaningfully, and retract it.

And God help you out there in them Twitter streets.