‘It’s absolute fear-mongering’: The GP countering health misinformation from online influencers

Evelyn Lewin

27/11/2019 2:03:30 PM

Dr Preeya Alexander believes the landscape of general practice has changed, as the reach of influencers continues to grow.

Two people using smartphones.
Social media has made it easier to spread non-evidence-based health misinformation.

Dr Preeya Alexander is on a mission to fight back against health misinformation.
She told newsGP her passion was inflamed after reading an article a few years ago.
‘The reason I started all of this in 2016 is because I literally saw, in mainstream media, an article that stated that increasing avocado consumption could cure cancer, or be part of the cancer-curing treatment regimen,’ she said.
‘That was the moment where I went, “Enough’s enough. I have the potential to share accurate health information that’s evidence-based, so that is what I’m going to do”.’
The seeds were thus sown for Dr Alexander’s website The Wholesome Doctor, as well as its accompanying Instagram account.
While it was an isolated article that kick-started Dr Alexander’s desire to share accurate, evidence-based health information, she laments the fact such untruths are more prevalent than ever.
‘It’s thanks to platforms like Facebook and Instagram,’ she said.
‘What we’ve got now is people with thousands or millions of followers who look wonderful in a bikini, who perhaps run a fitness business, but actually have no health qualifications.
‘But these same people are very comfortable sharing what they think is “health information” and it can be quite dangerous.’
Dr Alexander can think of ‘hundreds and thousands’ of such examples. One that stands out is the so-called celery juice movement, which she calls ‘very concerning’.
‘That’s got multiple very glamorous influencers who spout that drinking celery juice daily can cure cancer, cure autism, cure asthma,’ Dr Alexander said.
‘That’s clearly not an evidence-based claim.’
While she chooses not to name any individual, Dr Alexander said she is livid about a well-known Australian influencer ‘with no health qualifications’ who charges people to attend anti-vaccination workshops.
‘She basically gets people, and herself, to talk about the risks of vaccination and it’s all misinformation,’ she said.
‘It’s linking [the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine] MMR with autism still, which we know has been absolutely debunked.
‘It’s absolute fear-mongering.’

Preeya-Article.jpg Dr Alexander is frustrated influencers with ‘millions’ of followers who have ‘no health qualifications’ feel comfortable spruiking misinformation.

Not only does Dr Alexander worry about the impact such misinformation might have on the public, she is also concerned about its effect on general practice as a profession.
‘I think if you’re sitting in your clinic as a GP thinking that you have the full ear and trust of your patients, then you’re probably mistaken,’ she said.
‘As a GP, you need to realise the kind of stuff that people are constantly reading on their social media feeds and online.
‘[You need] to be aware that it might be more work for us now to actually gain rapport with our patients and to combat some of the misinformation that our patients are being fed.’
The overall effect on general practice is significant, she said.
‘Basically it’s harder, I think, to do a good job as a GP now,’ she said.
‘And I think more of us ideally need to get out there and share our health information and evidence-based information to combat some of this muddy water.
‘It’s quite concerning as a doctor, watching the types of things that people are willing to listen to from people with no qualifications.’
Dr Alexander, who recently penned a children’s book on healthy eating called Rainbow Plate, posts evidence-based information to her website every day or two.
‘It’s a huge amount of work,’ she said.
But she calls it a labour of love and enjoys covering a broad range of topics relevant to general practice, ranging from preconception care to iron deficiency anaemia, exercise and increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.
Unfortunately, it has not all been smooth sailing.
‘About four months ago I was heavily attacked by anti-vaccination groups after posting about vaccine information,’ she said.
‘It got to the point where I was getting personal threats and had to involve police, who were very helpful.
‘I got thousands of attacks but the positive was that the medical community in Australia and abroad really backed me. It was amazing knowing I had the support of my profession.’
Dr Alexander, who is pregnant and a mother of a three-year-old, was understandably shaken by this experience.
‘I was very scared to post on vaccinations after the attacks, which is exactly the purpose of the attacks, but I’ve persisted and I do lots of posts now,’ she said.
And Dr Alexander feels honoured by the wide reach of her work.
‘I know this is very cliché, but I can see 20 people in the clinic in one day, and I can reach nearly 14,000 people with my Instagram,’ she said.
‘I really love it. I’ve always had an inner Beyoncé, I call her, and now she’s getting some light.’
While Dr Alexander is passionate about shattering health myths, she is equally fired up about conveying the strengths of general practice – both to other doctors and the public.
This passion stems from her early days as a doctor, where she walked away from basic physician training after two years in the program to pursue a career in general practice.
That move garnered a lot of negativity from hospital doctors, but Dr Alexander remains happy with her decision and hopes to educate others on the important role GPs play.
‘I really try to shine a light on the amazingness that the GP in the clinic is for a patient, what we can actually provide, the variety that we actually see, the fact that we really are the cornerstone of good primary healthcare,’ she said.
‘I personally don’t think enough is being done to actually highlight what a GP can do.
‘I think we have a long way to go in improving how people view us.’

Log in below to join the conversation.

anti-vaccination health misinformation influencers

newsGP weekly poll Have you noticed a shift in patient sentiment towards paying for general practice care?

newsGP weekly poll Have you noticed a shift in patient sentiment towards paying for general practice care?



Login to comment

A.Prof Christopher David Hogan   28/11/2019 8:04:24 AM

Congratulations Dr Preeya Alexander you taken notice of one of the ancient Roman warnings Qui Tacet Consentire- who is quiet consents.
Well , you are not quiet & you do not consent!

Old paradigms are changing. I am one of the RACGP historians & it is very easy to see these changes, even chart them. I was educated in a time when to be "professional " meant assuming a quiet dignity, not responding to the nagging chatter of charlatans in the strong expectation that commonsense would prevail. That our Health Department would spread the FACTS & that this would be backed up by what our society's children were taught in school.
Well, such days are gone. Our society fears that it has been betrayed by its institutions- Churches, Government, teachers, Aged Care Facilities, police, judges, courts & prisons.
The only "experts" with credibility are the amateurs .
So it is time to fight & to speak up

Dr Paul Grinzi   28/11/2019 11:30:50 AM

There's a word for these people:

Well done Preeya!

Dr Nell De Graaf   28/11/2019 2:09:55 PM

Well done Preeya!
The amount of unsubstantiated information put out now is overwhelming .
Its good to see someone taking them on.
All power to you👍👌

Dr Graham James Lovell   29/11/2019 4:41:17 PM

Great work Preeya,
It’s sad to see fanatics allowed to harass someone of such pure motives.
I don’t have your younger on line skills, and envy your abilities to at least
Inform the vulnerable.
At present without the government clamping down hard on these bogus
and unsubstantiated claims unqualified practitioners receive too much belief
in their offerings.
I wonder if you’re content could be shared nationally to reach everyone??