It’s become difficult to turn on the TV or look online without coming across a headline concerning the coronavirus (COVID-19).
It’s the leading global health crisis of the moment, and some of you may currently be writing about it for work.
With so much new information circulating, it can be challenging for the general public to sift through what’s true and what’s not.
This makes our jobs as health writers—to provide accurate, science-based information—more important than ever before.
In this article, I hope to provide some tips for health/medical writers on how to write responsibly and avoid spreading misinformation.
In December 2019, an outbreak of a new coronavirus (COVID-19) was first reported in Wuhan province, China. Its symptoms included respiratory illness and fever.
On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus to be a global health emergency.
At the time of writing this post, there are over 100,000 cases and 4,000 related deaths confirmed worldwide.
The WHO gave COVID-19 a very high global risk assessment, meaning it is very likely to continue spreading.
Tip #1: Select words that carry the right message
Reporting the latest information in a manner that is factual and devoid of any ‘sensational’ words is in the best interest of the public.
Health writers have to balance the need to convey the seriousness of this global health emergency without resorting to language that downplays the facts or breeds hysteria.
One common comparison that has been circulating is that contracting COVID-19 is similar to getting the seasonal flu. I asked an epidemiologist about her take.
“Most people have a poor understanding of what influenza is and how serious it can be, so comparing coronavirus disease to influenza is not an effective way to help audiences understand COVID-19 symptoms, risk, and mortality,” said Kathryn H. Jacobsen MPH, PhD, a professor of Global Health and Epidemiology at George Mason University.
Furthermore, although both coronavirus and influenza share similar symptoms, the two viruses are very different.
Comparing them could lead to misperceptions and confusion regarding COVID-19.
In late February and early March, you may have seen news outlets with catchy headlines referring to COVID-19 as a pandemic, despite the WHO and other scientific institutions initially refraining from using this word.
Part of the reason could be how the word pandemic is perceived in the public.
For many people, a pandemic connotes ‘a really bad epidemic’ and not the scientific meaning of a ‘wide distribution of cases across many countries’.
Dr. Jacobsen explained: “Because the term ‘pandemic’ is poorly defined and using it may cause anxiety among members of the public, some health officials were opting to use terms like ‘global epidemic’ to describe the situation.”
However, as of March 11, 2020, WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. This new development signals a shift in focus from containing the virus to preparing hospitals and health institutions in addressing the disease.
While these designations may not affect your target audience directly, understanding their use could help them process the information without any misperceptions.
Be cautious with the words you select and be sure to clarify the science behind these words.
Tip # 2: Don’t communicate certainty when there isn’t any
In order to understand some of the biggest mistakes health communicators make when reporting on epidemics I sought out Dr Emily Vraga PhD, an Associate professor at the University of Minnesota.
She is an expert on the spread of health misinformation across social media platforms and has published numerous articles on the topic.
Dr Vraga stated that one common error health communicators make is not reflecting the uncertainty of a health situation.
At the beginning of a health crisis, scientists and doctors are in the process of gathering data and information and therefore there are a lot of unknowns.
Projecting a false sense of certainty on the facts of the virus can have negative consequences.
Dr Vraga explained: “It can create discrepancies between different health professionals and makes it more difficult to update the information or advice if the facts on the ground shift, as they can do in fast-moving health issues.”
One way to avoid this mistake can be to include disclaimers that explain how new developments may result in changing information.
Tip #3: Stick with the right sources
It’s important to rely on trustworthy sources such as the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for your information and to follow their lead in describing the disease.
In addition, speaking with local health and community leaders in a region grappling with an illness is one way to ensure your writing is accurate and reflective of their experience.
They may also be more in tune with any misinformation being spread through communities via Facebook, WhatsApp or other mediums.
Many messages are being shared online with no medical or scientific basis, and regional leaders could be excellent partners in making sure the correct information is reaching the right people.
Tip #4: Highlight the facts instead of correcting every myth
How should health professionals address misinformation?
You may be thinking that correcting every wrong message is the best way, but current research suggests otherwise.
Bringing attention to misinformation can give the reader the false belief that there is a truth behind the myth.
A recent study led by researchers at Dartmouth College and IE University in Spain found that the WHO’s attempts to debunk misinformation on the Zika virus had the opposite effect; not only did it not diminish their belief in the false information, respondents ended up being sceptical of the facts as well.
Dr Vraga suggests that a better approach is “focusing on providing the facts without directly mentioning myths or misinformation unless it is directly brought up.”
Tip #5: Don’t stigmatise and practice sensitivity
Writers should be careful about how they report on communities affected by a particular illness or epidemic.
Too often racially insensitive beliefs or stereotypical assumptions of groups of people can emerge when reporting on epidemics in other countries.
This can lead to the stigmatisation of groups of people and whole communities, which impede on public health efforts.
As health writers, we can combat this by clearly stating that a virus, in this case, the COVID-19, does not only target one race or ethnicity.
Asian-Americans, for example, who have not travelled to regions dealing with the virus are not more likely to become infected or infect others.
Tip #6: Focus on practical advice
As health communicators, we can counter any fears that arise from an epidemic or pandemic by focusing on practical steps individuals can take to protect themselves and their families.
Emphasise the effectiveness of basic measures such as abiding by the travel guidelines of your country, covering your face with a tissue when sneezing or coughing, and washing your hands correctly.
In light of the current global COVID-19 epidemic, there’s a lot of information being spread online that is inaccurate and sensationalist.
There’s still a lot to be learned about this virus, including its severity.
Due to the nature of epidemics, information is always changing and it’s important we take into consideration how guidelines may change according to the latest developments.
As health writers, our responsibility is to report the facts in an evidence-based manner that doesn’t leave the reader feeling panicked or helpless.
I hope you found this article to be helpful in providing you with tips to achieve this goal.
About the author
This post was written by a member of the Health Writer Hub Alumni