Gynecologist Gunter on bogus health claims: ‘Somebody has to take a stand’
Doctors should embrace social media as a tool for reaching the public with accurate, unbiased health information, says an outspoken U of M alumna known as “Twitter’s resident gynecologist.”
“If that’s where patients are, that’s where I need to meet them,” Dr. Jen Gunter, author, blogger, medical pundit and New York Times women’s health columnist, said at the Teacher Recognition and Manitoba Medical Students’ Association (MMSA) Awards Dinner on Feb. 13.
Gunter is the author of the forthcoming book The Vagina Bible: The vulva and the vagina – separating the myth from the medicine.
Whether doctors like it or not, patients search the Internet for health advice, the self-described “warrior” for women’s health told about 135 students, teachers, faculty and deans from the Max Rady College of Medicine at the ninth annual awards evening, held at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
What patients find online can be dangerously slanted and misleading, like anti-vaccine lore and myths about abortion, said the Winnipeg-born Gunter, a 1990 U of M medicine grad who practises in the San Francisco Bay area.
Patients who are frantically seeking a treatment or cure are prime targets for pseudoscientific claims, Gunter said – and that’s something she knows first-hand. Sixteen years ago, she felt desperate after giving birth to premature triplets. One of her sons died at birth and the other two were left with many health challenges.
“You start going down these terrible rabbit holes,” she recalled about her online odyssey at that vulnerable time.
Purveyors of Internet snake oil, Gunter said, create a veneer of authenticity, which has become more trusted than scientific or medical expertise. Such hucksters convince their followers that they are “real,” “approachable” and “relatable,” and therefore trustworthy.
The feisty gynecologist’s fame arose partly through her calling out of actress Gwyneth Paltrow as a prime snake-oil offender. Paltrow’s Goop website, Gunter asserts, sells women dubious and potentially harmful “wellness” products without any evidence of their safety or merit.
“I decided that somebody has to take a stand, and that the truth matters,” Gunter said about her irreverent crusade to debunk fake health claims. “When you put yourself out there and tell the truth, people start to notice.”
Gunter called on her fellow physicians to combat the morass of misinformation by directing their patients to reliable online sources, sharing credible medical articles on social media, and making themselves available for media interviews.
“It’s important for all of us to figure out how we can reach out to the public,” she said.
She also suggested doctors use tools like Facebook and Twitter to show patients that they’re human. “When people feel they know you, they’re more likely to believe you,” she said.
Gunter’s own Twitter account openly, and often humorously, reveals her imperfect life – her kids, her pets, her wardrobe, her cooking – and she maintains that it shows the public she is genuine.
“How can you make your patients feel a little more like they have a connection with you?” she asked. “We have to invest in authenticity.”
Earlier in the evening, emcee Dr. Ira Ripstein, associate dean of undergraduate medical education, thanked all the physicians and other teachers at the Max Rady College of Medicine in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, noting that teaching awards would be presented in 19 categories, voted on by medical students.
“Tonight, our students have the opportunity to say ‘thank you’ for teaching that is innovative, stimulating and inspiring,” Ripstein said. “Through the example you set with your dedication and service, you are showing our future physicians what it means to care.”
The Teacher Recognition Awards honoured teaching excellence in categories such as innovation, inspiration, mentorship, patient advocacy and small-group teaching.
Five awards were also presented to medical students who have distinguished themselves in the categories of citizenship, global health, community service, leadership and professionalism.
The list of teacher and student winners can be found on the MMSA website.