Teaching Medical Students How to Combat Misinformation on Social Media

To mask or not to mask? The act of protection, now the center of a political debate, is one of many topics currently clouded by misinformation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. To combat these falsehoods, a new virtual course at the University of Minnesota Medical School trains medical students to recognize and amplify reliable public health messaging and engage in respectful and informed medical discourse on social media.

“The medical students, as they learned they would be taken off the wards because of COVID-19, were like, ‘What am I going to do? I’m just going to sit at home? Can I be helpful?’” said Kristina Krohn, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Medicine. “I said, ‘Well, you could share information. Retweet stuff from the Minnesota Department of Health and CDC,’ and they said, ‘I don’t have a Twitter account. I don’t know how to do that.’”

She did. In just over one week, Dr. Krohn had created the four-week elective course, “COVID-19: Outbreaks and the Media,” which was inspired by her experience as the second-ever Stanford NBC News Global Health Media Fellow in 2012. During that training, she helped identify and translate public health information for NBC Nightly News.

So far, Dr. Krohn has led two rounds of the online course, teaching medical students about COVID-19 and how to fact-check data, translate scientific literature and use social media to connect the public with accurate information about the pandemic.

“At the same time, we taught them how to craft a message. What’s your communication objective? How do you sign-up for Twitter? How do you make an infographic? How do you retweet?” Dr. Krohn explained.

During the course, Dr. Krohn partnered with experts in the U of M’s School of Journalism who specialize in public health communication. One of those experts, Emily Vragra, PhD, focused on how to correct misinformation on social media, teeing up one of the assignments for the course.

“Each student used their own social media accounts on either Twitter or Facebook to call out incorrect information,” Dr. Krohn said. “We taught them that they may not change the primary person’s stance because they obviously felt strong enough to share it. But, all of your social group who you connect with in that medium, the secondary eyes to that, you do significantly change their impression.”

Other aspects of the course involved writing a post for the class’ “Blog of Medical Discourse” and developing a “Tweetorial” to post on their Twitter accounts. Between both rounds of the course, Dr. Krohn says they averaged about 14 tweets per person, earning more than 100,000 Twitter impressions in less than two months—a large feat accomplished by just 20 medical students, most of whom had never tweeted before.

“I follow the students on Twitter and half of them are still active. As far as retention on Twitter, over half of them continue to be involved. That’s not insignificant,” Dr. Krohn said.

The success of the course led to its recent publication in the journal, Academic Pediatrics, and earned it additional funding from the Medical School through a COVID-19 Medical Education Innovation grant. Dr. Krohn says training medical students to be “sharers of knowledge” is critical—both for fellow physicians and for their patients.

“The word ‘doctor’ actually comes from the Greek word for teacher,” Dr. Krohn said. “If we share publicly our knowledge in formats that are open and available to the public, we help people make better choices sooner, but we don’t learn how to do that in medical school. I think it’s a huge skill that we’ve overlooked, and social media has made it so that a medical student can do this. We just need to help them do it well and give them the appropriate teaching and tools.”

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