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Nurses Confronting COVID-19 Misinformation


By Jean-Luc Vezina, BSN, MPH, RN, surveyor, Behavioral Health and Human Services Program

For the 17th year in a row, nurses were ranked as the most trusted profession (Gallup’s Ethic Survey).  As such, the ability of nurses to influence the perceptions and beliefs of their patients can be significant.  Accordingly, it’s time for nurses to leverage some of that goodwill in a proactive and deliberate effort to reshape the dialogue around COVID-19.   

Accessing timely and accurate health information can be challenging. Science, after all, moves continuously forward changing seemingly overnight our understanding of what is healthy and good for us. In the best of times, staying informed can be difficult.  

Recently, some media outlets and elected officials have begun politicizing COVID-19, a byproduct of which has been increasing partisan divide and tribalism. Every day , established science is blended with unproven claims or misinformation, leaving discriminating consumers scrambling for the facts and others eager to endorse the latest panacea.

The Hydroxychloroquine Debacle
Consider hydroxychloroquine, a drug used in the treatment of malaria, lupus and rheumatoid Arthritis. On April 27, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) allowing Hydroxychloroquine to be used in treating adults and adolescents hospitalized with COVID-19. However, on July 1, 2020, the FDA wrote in a statement that the drug is “unlikely to be effective.”Fast-moving advice from the highest levels of government can be hard even for medical professionals to digest and put into practice.

For the lay public, today’s broad availability of media sources and news outlets can create data overload making health information a moving target, easy to acquire but hard to decipher. Mixed messaging on COVID-19 has created a perception of decreased susceptibility or severity, and even the devaluation of certain health promoting activities (e.g., wearing facial covering). When the health of the public is at stake, the actions of the collective directly impact the wellbeing of the community. Now more than ever, accurate health information can be the difference between life or death.  

Role of Nurses
In the age of COVID-19, nurses should be clear about their responsibility to confront misinformation, whenever and wherever it is encountered.  By virtue of their ethical code, nurses must always:

  • be truthful 
  • acknowledge each person as an individual 
  • recognize the patient’s right to accept or reject any treatment 
  • provide patients with objective facts, so they can make informed decisions.  

The ethical principles of veracity and autonomy, central to the practice of nursing, are the reasons why nurses must embrace their role as change agents in the battle for the public’s attention on health information.

Some abilities and willingness don’t come naturally to all nurses, including those to:

  • initiate conversations on controversial issues 
  • confront others
  • educate on objective facts
  • speak to the misinformed 

I’ve encountered nurses with superb communication skills and temperament, able to deftly navigate the interpersonal and professional challenges of today’s health care environment without even an ounce of outward frustration. To those nurses for whom the initiation of difficult conversations isn’t as easy, during a worldwide pandemic with accelerating case counts in many parts of the United States, mindful and deliberate action is needed. 

Nurses everywhere should be of one mind regarding their critical role in shaping public perceptions on wearing masks, social distancing and other public health practices critical to stabilizing the outbreak.  Now is not the time to let our personal discomfort hinder our responsibility to be part of the solution. Nurses can influence the dialogue and help create the community action needed to flatten the curve and squelch COVID-19 spread with a singular sense of purpose - one nurse, one patient, and one family at a time .

Jean-Luc Vezina, BSN, MPH, RN is a nurse surveyor with the Behavioral Health cadre.  For the last three years as a full-time surveyor, he has surveyed mental health and addiction facilities throughout the United States.