September 29, 2021

Should Nurses be Reprimanded for Spreading Misinformation Online? (podcast)

Should Nurses be Reprimanded for Spreading Misinformation Online? (podcast)

Nurse Alice has a strong stance on this one: nurses who willingly spread misinformation that could harm patients’ lives should run the risk of having their licenses revoked.

There is a lot of information being shared online these days, from the Facebook post that your neighbor posted about their best friend’s sister’s cousin who swears they have some insider knowledge about virus treatments to celebrities tweeting out warnings about testicles.

But what happens when it’s a nurse who’s sharing information online that’s just not true? As a health professional whose opinion does carry clout and whose voice could make a very real difference in very real people’s lives, it can be tricky when sharing information about health online, especially if it’s not 100% proven.

In a recent Ask Nurse Alice podcast, Nurse Alice tackled the difficult topic of if nurses should be reprimanded for spreading misinformation online–and her tough stance may come as a surprise to some.

This content used under license from "Ask Nurse Alice."

Accuracy Matters When You Have a Platform

Nurse Alice kicked off her podcast by noting that she’s no stranger to discussing the intricacies of how the pandemic was handled. In fact, she was one of the first health reports to learn about the virus as it began circulating.

“I feel really passionate about this, because I have been talking on and reporting on COVID-19 since before it even came to the United States,” Nurse Alice shared.

She added that although it is true that some of the guidance and advice from leading health experts has changed from the early days of the pandemic, that those changes weren’t a deliberate attempt to confuse people, but instead, a simple matter of following the science to update recommendations as more was learned about the virus.

“When we know better, we do better,” she noted.

She also stressed that if you’re a nurse who is responsible for educating patients–and especially if you have an online platform where people follow you and listen to the advice and information you give, it’s crucial that you make sure that that information is correct.

“When we are educating patients, when we have platforms where we are elevating our voice and have the opportunity to spread information out to the masses, it’s very, very important that we are accurate,” she said.

And how do you do that? Well, Nurse Alice explained that the only real way to make sure the information you have is accurate is to constantly educate yourself through reputable medical journals, studies, and voices. The pandemic best practices have constantly been changing and while she was quick to say that there’s “no shade” to doctors and nurses who may still be giving outdated advice (because it can be hard to keep up!), it’s vital to know enough not to spread information about what you don't know.

“The least little bit of misinformation can go a long way and cause harm,” Nurse Alice explained.

Examples of Misinformation Being Spread

So what kind of misinformation are we talking about here? Nurse Alice explained that some of the misinformation that is commonly being spread online includes things like:

1. You can fight off COVID by simply boosting your immune system

While Nurse Alice admitted that helping keeping your immune system strong with steps like:

  • Drinking enough water
  • Avoiding sugary drinks
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating nutritious foods

Are all helpful in general for any type of health condition, they’re not going to be enough to fight off COVID-19. “That’s a looong stretch,” Nurse Alice said. “It’s not going to be a game-changer when it comes to fighting COVID.”

2. Off-label meds like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine are cures for COVID

“The science is clear on these,” said Nurse Alice. “These medications do not cure, prevent, or clear up COVID.”

3. Masks can be detrimental to health

There’s no evidence that wearing masks is harmful, Nurse Alice noted.

“If we steer them in the wrong direction, it can cause harm and lead them to think they’re in a better place to fight of COVID-19 than they are,” she explained.

Healthcare workers are refusing the vaccine

Only 1 out of every 4 of healthcare workers have refused the vaccine, said Nurse Alice. That equates to 90% of physicians being vaccinated and 75% of nurses.

Know Your Lane

Part of the problem with the misinformation that can be found in the healthcare world–even among licensed doctors and nurses–is that there are many types of specialities among healthcare professionals. So just because you are a nurse, or even a doctor, doesn’t mean that you are an expert on COVID. Nurse Alice gave the example that despite her many years of experience as an advanced practice nurse, she certainly wouldn’t be dishing out information on how to deliver a baby because that’s not her area of expertise.

“It’s important to know what you don’t know,” she pointed out.

Thus, we may be seeing nurses online who are spreading misinformation about an area they may not have expertise in. And unfortunately, spreading misinformation isn’t just about facts, Nurse Alice also pointed out.

Doctors Could Have Their Medical License Suspended

As medical boards have noted, doctors who spread misinformation are putting patients at risk due to inaccurate information, risking their own medical licenses because spreading misinformation violates the oath they took to first cause no harm, and are eroding trust in the entire healthcare industry as a whole.

What Nurse Alice referred to was a July 2021 statement from the The Federation of State Medical Boards’ Board of Directors that warned that doctors who are spreading misinformation can and should have their medical licenses suspended or revoked.

But should the same thing apply to Registered Nurses? Should RNs be at risk for getting their nursing licenses taken away or suspended if they spread misinformation?

There hasn’t been a statement from the American Nurses Association with a clear decision on this, but Nurse Alice feels very strongly that the answer should be yes.

“It’s a simple yes for me,” she added.

However, she noted that enforcing such discipline is difficult because of the many different educational pathways that someone can enter into nursing from. A diploma-prepared RN, for instance, may just not have the same type of experiences and education as a doctoral-prepared RN, for instance. Or a rural office nurse may not have been exposed to the same situations that an inner-city ER nurse would have. It’s the differences that make the nursing industry stronger as a whole, but it’s also those differences that can make passing a disciplinary action tricky.

3 Ways to Stop the Spread of Misinformation

Nurse Alice ended her podcast by discussing some of the ways that, as healthcare professionals, we can all work together to stop the spread of misinformation online.

  1. First, she observed that we should all recognize that getting partial bits of information without the entire truth--or staying up-to-date on that information--can be very dangerous. “What’s so interesting about lies is that there is an element of truth in them,” noted Nurse Alice.
  2. Secondly, the single best thing you can do is that, unless you’re a provider who is up-to-date on COVID-19, you may want to keep your opinions to yourself.
  3. Defer to the experts and if you need to discuss best practices for COVID with your patients, she recommended the strategy that nurses use all of the time: educate your patients about pros and cons and give options, while being very clear about the potential consequences of those options, like skipping a vaccine.

“Let people choose, stop shaming, and stop arguing,” Nurse Alice said. “Have collegial conversations and if you’re spreading misinformation or name-shaming, and take a chill pill. Let’s be professional and practice evidence-based medicine.”

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