Mary Woolley AACP Panel Discussion
Mary Woolley, President and CEO of Research!America, opened the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) annual meeting by leading a conversation on “Combating Anti-Science Thinking” with Georges C. Benjamin, MD, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, and Bruce Gellin, MD, Chief of Global Public Health Strategy at the Rockefeller Foundation.
The panelists addressed disturbing trends in anti-science thinking; the prevalence of misinformation and disinformation; and ongoing efforts within their organizations to address science skepticism, with emphasis on vaccine hesitancy.
Here are a few highlights from their discussion, but you can also watch the entire conversation (panel discussion begins just after the 30 minute mark).
MW: Georges, you recently testified to Congress about combatting vaccine hesitancy — you spoke about the need to double down on our efforts. Can you comment on what’s causing the lack of trust and address what we need to do to build more trust?
GB: Normally, [watching science develop] happens below the radar… but in this case, the public watched the scientific process, the deliberations that occur, the concerns, the questions that people have.
[With vaccination], when you get to that last group of people, whatever your goal is, that last 20% is always real tough, and so the way you get to them is just shoe leather public health. You educate people, you talk to them, you make it convenient to get the vaccine wherever they are, and you bang on doors… not only giving them the right message, but the right messenger.
We've not fully utilized pharmacists in this process as we need to, nor have we fully utilized the primary care docs; for a bunch of logistical reasons they were late to get their stock of vaccines. So we've got some work to do there, both on the delivery of getting vaccines to the people that give the shots, and getting those shots in arms.
MW: The Surgeon General just issued an advisory on misinformation and disinformation that contains great advice. Bruce, what is your view of the spike in anti-science? Why? What can be done to rebut it?
BG: When America’s Surgeon General stands up and says, “This is a health problem,” it's up there with smoking, it's up there with suicide, it is up there with mental health, and the things that Surgeons General talk about, that’s serious business.
The report talks about how this is an “all hands on deck,” every sector of society has a piece here. There is no “magic bullet,” so the more that people are involved, the more likely we are to dampen some of this [misinformation], but I don’t think we’re going to eradicate it… This is not just social media, but there are now new amplifiers: fear, polarization, and now the technology, have interacted in new ways. So while this has been around for a long time, the access to misinformation, the ability of people to drive disinformation, is really unprecedented, and sadly that’s our future. So if we don’t get in front of this thing we’re going to be scrambling for a long time.
MW: While the pharmacy community has played a tremendously important role in the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, we’re still stalled out on vaccine uptake — why and what can we all do about it?
BG: I think it's gone from pushing those who are willing to go to a mass clinic to those who are going to go to more familiar places where they get routine immunizations. This discussion as pharmacy leaders is really important because it’s an opportunity to take advantage of the trust in pharmacists broadly and the education you're providing to future pharmacists.
Pharmacists are on the front lines, there's probably no more accessible health care provider than pharmacists. The ability to respond to questions to stimulate a conversation with your patients and customers is really important from an educational standpoint... we're at a time now where it's more of the kinds of conversations we routinely have, one-on-one, trying to answer people's questions, trying to be sensitive to their issues, and providing them with the best evidence-based information to help them make their decisions.
MW: What can we do to address the role of misinformation and disinformation in fostering vaccine hesitancy?
GB: The problem we have right now is that we don’t have the infrastructure on the trusted messenger side to – in a deliberate way, in an intentional way – put the right information out there… There are still people intentionally trying to give you the wrong information. What we need is proactive efforts from the private sector to make sure that people get the right information in a timely way.
The full hour-long discussion can be viewed here (panel begins at the 30 minute mark). The panelists reference several resources that may be helpful, including:
National Academy of Medicine discussion paper, “Identifying Credible Sources of Health Information in Social Media: Principles and Attributes,” (July 16, 2021)
Surgeon General’s Advisory “Confronting Health Misinformation” (July 2021)
“Vaccination from the Misinformation Virus” documentary (premiered July 2021)
DHS cybersecurity agency’s “Resilience” series of graphic novels aimed at teaching readers how to identify and stop the spread of misinformation
NBC article on TikTok pharmacist Savannah Sparks, who uses social platforms to confront health practitioners who spread misinformation