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(MedEd)itorial: To Correct or Not to Correct Your Non-Medical Friends

Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation with a friend about something completely unrelated to medicine when they say something like, “Jenny says I’m FULL of toxins so I’m taking these pills; they are full of anti-TOXidants” and you immediately cringe and fight the urge to say, “Do you even know what a toxin is? And antioxidants have nothing to do with toxins!” Hmph!

I don’t know if I’m just noticing it more these days, or if it’s happening more often, but I’m finding that I’m wincing quite often when confronted with erroneous medical discussion.  Recently I’ve started re-watching Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix and scoff nearly every episode. I turn to my boyfriend and I’m like, “Why are surgical interns on the pediatric service?” Then, “Why is a neurosurgeon working in the trauma bay?” and, “Why is everyone seizing all the time!?!?” He just looks at me and shrugs and I’m left sitting there all self righteous about my superior medical knowledge.  I can’t really even watch any TV shows without scrutinizing the medical practice.

To be honest, this scenario isn’t even that bad for anyone but myself.  What is really uncomfortable is when people on Facebook post things like “please send your thoughts and prayers: I was diagnosed with skin cancer and I am going to get a biopsy today.”  Wait. You haven’t been diagnosed with cancer without a biopsy Makes no sense. Why does this make me so upset though?  Why is it that I actually have to fight the urge to respond to all the prayers and say something like “You guys are wasting your prayers! Save them until AFTER the biopsy!” I mean, what’s WRONG with me?  When did I turn into the Facebook medical troll?

The question I have been asking myself recently is: is it necessary for me to correct my friends when they say something just completely wrong, medically? Is it my duty? Or is it just a way to feel superior?  Why do I really even care?  The best part about this is that I am sure that every single person in all types of industries have these same thoughts about the erroneous things others say about finances, cars, politics, electronics, or even parenthood!

I blame it on the internet.

We live in an age where everyone’s opinion can be shared immediately in response to someone else’s opinion. This has sparked the culture of the “need to be right”.  Sure, this need to be right has existed since the beginning of time, but in the past, we weren’t exposed to so many opinions and ideas and certainly weren’t given the opportunity to debate these ideas ON THE SPOT.  My desire to be “right” about medicine is no different. Me commenting/correcting people about their misconceptions about medicine is just as obnoxious as admonishing tweets about a little girl in a Pocahontas costume on Halloween or a scolding comment on a picture of a woman feeding her child with baby formula (if you don’t understand these references, see #CultureAppropriation or #BreastIsBest  on twitter). Is it great to have these discussions? Yes, absolutely.  Is much going to be accomplished in an internet forum at 3 am? No, probably not. The same can be said about my self righteous medical correction on facebook: what’s the point?

Is it ever appropriate to correct?

I think so. Not all the time, or even most of the time, but sometimes.  I feel that there are 3 major scenarios when it is ok to correct erroneous medicine:

1. If the misunderstanding could cause direct harm/consequence to the person or others

If one of my friends tells me that she has had a horrible cough for a few days and she is thinking about taking some antibiotics leftover from her mom’s wound infection, that is a completely appropriate time to voice your concerns.  You don’t have to be self righteous, but you can simply say “Hey, I’m sorry you aren’t feeling well! I think you should probably go to your doctor before taking anyone’s antibiotics.  Those might not cover the same bugs that are affecting you, be the right dose, and could have potentially dangerous side effects!”  I think that is reasonable enough.

2. If knowing the truth might actually alleviate someone’s fear or emotional pain

There are so many people that are afraid of very common screening tests like mammograms or colonoscopies.  If you hear a loved one say “I’m afraid of getting a colonoscopy because that seems like it would be really painful, or at least uncomfortable,” that is a perfect time to intervene.  “Aunt Suzie, I know the unknown can be very scary.  I can tell you though, from my experience, patients are mostly uncomfortable with the bowel prep the night before and often find the anesthesia and warm blanked during the procedure itself to be kind of relaxing!  IT is not something you will feel once you wake up, and it is really an important screening measure to have at your age.”  Boom. Your correction helped Aunt Suzie.

3. If a direct question is asked, and someone not in-the-know is offering outrageous responses 

Ok so maybe this one isn’t as important as the other ones, but goodness knows, there is nothing like a hysterical person spouting misinformation to really confuse and misdirect people into making poor healthcare choices.  When someone asks “Is it really true that diet coke causes cancer?”  And someone answers “Yes! Not only that, but it can actually affect your fertility or even your future children’s IQ!   You really should drink full sugar beverages, none of this aspartame! SUGAR! SUGAR! SUGAR!” Whoa… This is all kinds of wrong. Not only is this person making unsubstantiated medical claims, but is also promoting a behavior that is potentially more harmful: excessive sugar consumption!  In this scenario, I think it would be perfectly ok to chime in and set the record straight.

What’s the moral of the story?

No matter who you are, what industry you work in or level of education, everyone certainly has that one topic that they just know way more about than the general public.  It isn’t unique to we medical professionals, yet I find we are most tempted to correct others. You don’t see an electrical engineer correcting people who say “yeah, my computer just short circuited,” when obviously most people using this rhetoric have no idea what it technically means, or if it is even applicable to them.  So let’s join all the other professionals and keep our self-righteous need to correct in check, and save our medical knowledge for the boards.