Throughout the pandemic, one thing has remained painstakingly clear: Health communication in the United States is lacking.

Confusing and inconsistent guidance on mask-wearing and vaccinations has contributed to pandemic fatigue, which allows newer variants to spread more easily. Online misinformation about COVID-19 has also been linked to vaccine hesitancy, even when false claims are debunked by public health authorities.

It may seem like social media is the worst way to increase public health awareness, but when most Americans have at least one social media profile, sharing information online can be an effective way to combat vaccine hesitancy and appeal to more people. 

Dr. Cedric “Jamie” Rutland has witnessed this firsthand through the success of his YouTube channel, Medicine Deconstructed.

A pulmonary and critical care physician, Rutland started his channel in 2017 mainly to practice his communication skills and break down complex medical concepts for curious viewers. After receiving positive feedback, he expanded to other forms of social media like Instagram to disseminate information. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic touched the US, Rutland knew that his social media platforms could help a lot of people understand what was going on.

“It just made sense to take this wave of information that was confusing and explain it to the public in a way they could understand,” he told Global Citizen.

Today, Rutland has over 22,000 subscribers on YouTube, demonstrating his success at addressing the public’s questions and hesitancy through entertaining, scientific videos. And as a co-host of the American Public Health Association’s YouTube series Barbershop Medicine, he has also seen the power of social media in targeting hard-to-reach communities, including communities of color, that may be more hesitant of the COVID-19 vaccine because of distrust in the US health care system.

Image: Courtesy of Dr. Cedric "Jamie" Rutland

If social media’s powers can be harnessed to find out who is hesitant about health care and what questions they have, then public health officials can address those questions to spread factual information. The first step is meeting people where they are — which is, increasingly, online.

As the US encounters another surge in COVID-19 cases, Global Citizen spoke to Dr. Rutland about his method of putting health care information online to improve accessibility and combat hesitancy.

Global Citizen: When you started Medicine Deconstructed, what were your expectations for putting your medical expertise on social media?

Dr. Cedric “Jamie” Rutland: In all honesty, I started my YouTube channel before social media exploded in terms of medical information. I wanted to practice my communication skills and how I explain concepts that relate to my expertise with the lungs. People seemed to like my explanations, so I started to take it more seriously and expanded to doing the same thing on my Instagram through stories and lives. I wanted to maintain a certain level of professionalism and focus on the actual things I saw every day.

Your pandemic-related videos go deeper than just telling people to wear a mask or get vaccinated. Why is it important to explain the details of how the body works to discuss COVID-19?

When COVID-19 started, it was just the right place, right time. SARS-CoV-2 leads to an autoimmune disease within the lungs, which is my specialty. And I didn’t want to tell people what to do — I wanted to explain the physiologic and scientific context of COVID-19 so they could come to their own conclusions of how to protect themselves, which is by wearing a mask and getting vaccinated.

Are you concerned about medical misinformation on social media?

Misinformation has always been around, and people are always going to spread their ideas, some of which are just wrong. With COVID-19, it’s not always that people are intentionally spreading misinformation, but they have questions or are curious about different ideas.

I don’t feel like I have to combat misinformation, but that I have to provide information to people. I want to take their questions and explain the answers scientifically.

This pandemic has shown us how important it is to improve health communications so people have the knowledge they need to protect themselves and others. Do you think social media is an effective way to do that?

Absolutely. Social media is a good place to share information because it’s where a lot of people go to waste time. But we can take advantage of that to make it a place where people learn things and become curious about things.

We can also learn a lot about what people are thinking and what they want from public health, and fix it. Not everyone can make a doctor’s appointment between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., right? A physician can market that they have office hours on the weekend, or from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., so that people who work can make it to a physician’s office.

And with certain patient populations — like people who live in the neighborhoods I grew up in, surrounded by liquor stores, cigarette shops, and fast food places — social media may be one of the only places where we can disseminate information about common diseases and treatment options.

This article is part of a series focused on vaccine hesitancy funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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