Throughout the pandemic, one thing has remained abundantly clear: health communication in the United States is lacking.
Confusing and inconsistent instructions for wearing masks and vaccines has contributed to pandemic fatigue, which allows newer variants to spread more easily. There has also been misinformation online about COVID-19 related to vaccine hesitancyeven when false claims are dismissed by public health authorities.
It may seem like social media is the worst way to raise public health awareness, but when most Americans have at least one social media profilesharing information online can be an effective way to combat vaccine hesitancy and attract more people.
Dr. Cedric “Jamie” Rutland has witnessed this firsthand through the success of his YouTube channel. Deconstructed medicine.
A pulmonary and critical care physician, Rutland started his channel in 2017 primarily to practice his communication skills and break down complex medical concepts for curious viewers. After receiving positive feedback, it expanded to other forms of social media such as Instagram to share information.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US, Rutland knew his social media platforms could help many people understand what was going on.
“It just made sense to take this wave of information that was confusing and explain it to the public in a way they could understand,” he told Global Citizen.
Today, Rutland has over 22,000 subscribers on YouTube, demonstrating his success in addressing the public’s questions and hesitations through entertaining and scientific videos. And as co-host of the American Public Health Association’s YouTube series Barbershop Medicinehe has also seen the power of social media in targeting hard-to-reach communities, including communities of color, who may be more hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine because of distrust in the US health care system.
If the powers of social media can be harnessed to find out who is hesitant about health care and what questions they have, then public health officials can address those questions to spread factual information. The first step is meeting people where they are – which is, increasingly, online.
As the US faces another increase in cases of COVID-19Global Citizen spoke with Dr. Rutland for his method of putting health care information online to improve access and combat hesitation.
Global Citizen: When you started Medicine Deconstructed, what were your expectations for putting your medical expertise on social media?
Dr. Cedric “Jamie” Rutland: In all honesty, I started my YouTube channel before social media exploded in terms of medical information. I wanted to practice my communication skills and how I explain concepts related to my lung expertise. People seemed to like my explanations, so I started taking it more seriously and expanded to do the same on my Instagram through stories and lives. I wanted to maintain a certain level of professionalism and focus on the actual things I saw every day.
Your pandemic-related videos go deeper than just telling people to wear a mask or get vaccinated. Why is it important to explain the details of how the body works to discuss COVID-19?
When COVID-19 started, it was the right place, the right time. SARS-CoV-2 leads to an autoimmune disease within the lungs, which is my specialty. And I didn’t want to tell people what to do – I wanted to explain the physiological and scientific context of COVID-19 so they could come to their own conclusions about how to protect themselves, which is by wearing a mask and being vaccinated.
Are you concerned about medical misinformation on social media?
Misinformation has always been around, and people will always spread their own ideas, some of which are just plain wrong. With COVID-19, people are not always intentionally spreading misinformation, but they have questions or are curious about different ideas.
I don’t think I should fight disinformation, but I should inform people. I want to take their questions and explain the answers scientifically.
This pandemic has shown us how important it is to improve health communication so that people have the knowledge they need to protect themselves and others. Do you think social media is an effective way to do this?
Absolutely. Social media is a good place to share information because it is where many people go to waste time. But we can take advantage of that to make it a place where people learn things and get curious about things.
We can also learn a lot about what people think and want from public health, and adjust it. Not everyone can make a doctor’s appointment between 9am and 5pm, right? A doctor may indicate that they have working hours on weekends, or from 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm, so that working people can go to a doctor’s office.
And with certain patient populations—like people who live in the neighborhoods where I grew up, surrounded by liquor stores, cigarette shops, and fast food places—social media may be one of the only places we can share information about common diseases and treatment options.
This article is part of a series focused on vaccine hesitancy funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.