In a time when social media is being used to circulate fake news, a group of doctors in Kerala are using social media to debunking fake health news. They have set up Info Clinic, a Facebook page to counter false information, myths and superstitions with regards to health and medicine. Started about a year ago, it has gained wide popularity. The page currently has over 45,000 followers and counting.

For example, on September 26, a week before measles-rubella vaccination drive began in Kerala, Dr KK Purushothaman, a senior member of the group who heads the paediatrics department at Thrissur Medical College, went live on Facebook to answer people’s questions about vaccination. The 45-minute session was a hit, garnering more than 10,000 views. The video is still being circulated on social media to raise awareness about vaccination.

“Facebook Live helped us reach out to people who were skeptical about MR vaccination,” said Dr PS Jinesh, a founding member of the group who works at a government hospital in Kottayam district. “Our aim was to support the health department’s efforts.”

On July 24, Purushothaman and Jinesh debunked, point by point, the contents of a WhatsApp audio clip in which a quack is heard warning a man that giving his four-year-old child pentavalent vaccine would make him autistic. Pentavalent vaccine is a combination inoculation against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B and haemophilus influenza type B.

“The message spread like wildfire,” Jinesh said, referring to the audio clip. “So, we decided to intervene because we feared people might stay away from the vaccination drive.”

A screenshot of KK Purushothaman Purushothaman's Facebook live on vaccination.

Not all of the clinic’s work, though, involves slaying hoaxes. The Info Clinic regularly posts informational articles written covering a range of subjects in paediatrics, gynaecology, family medicine, gastroenterology, ophthalmology, forensic medicine and psychiatry. So far, the page has published 135 articles written by doctors who are members of the group. The articles are all in Malayalam to reach the local audience. The articles are lucid and often peppered with interesting anecdotes to appeal to non-specialist readers.

Last month, for instance, the page published an explainer on the causes of HIV infection during blood transfusion. The article was posted a day after a nine-year-old girl contracted HIV after a series of blood transfusions at the Regional Cancer Centre in Thiruvananthapuram.

Similarly, the clinic proposed a “trauma care model” for Kerala following the death of a migrant labourer from Tamil Nadu after being denied treatment for five hours. The article argues the importance of planning and execution in getting accident victims to hospitals with adequate trauma care. The government needs to identify hospitals that can be developed as major trauma care centres based on staff availability and infrastructure and connect these centres in a network so that a victim can be taken to the nearest centre quickly.

Getting started

Info Clinic was launched by a group of six doctors in October 2016. “It was around the time anti-diphtheria vaccine campaign was gaining momentum,” said Dr Nelson Joseph, one of the founding members.

To counter this misinformation campaign, the doctors individually posted articles on Facebook, but none had any impact.

“We were disappointed and decided to give up the writing,” Joseph said. “At that point, someone mooted the idea of forming a platform to publish our articles. That is how Info Clinic came to be.”

A year on, the clinic boasts 25 contributing specialist doctors, from both public and private hospitals. “What binds us together is our interest in public health,” said Joseph. “We also enjoy writing for the common people. Our aim was to bring scientific rigour to the society and we have succeeded in our effort.”

The article describing the proposed 'trauma care model' for Kerala.

Quality work

The Info Clinic has a strict editorial policy to publish only high-quality articles. Thus, every idea for an article is discussed threadbare at a brainstorming session by members of the team. If the proposed topic is accepted as relevant, a writer is assigned from the group. “The task may be assigned to a single author or a group of authors depending on how vast the subject is,” Jinesh said.

The article then undergoes multiple reviews by other members of the group before it is published on Facebook. “We write facts, supported by statistics,” Joseph said. “We never sensationalise issues. We publish the name of the author doctor. It gives a sense of ownership.”

The 25 doctors do all this work while communicating through phone or email. “We meet rarely,” Joseph said. “In the past year, we met only three times.”

The doctors are now working to widen the Info Clinic’s influence by reaching out to more Malayalam readers but also to those who cannot read the language. “Only one per cent of the Malayalees read our articles now,” said Jinesh. “So, we have to improve our reach. We also plan to publish articles in English.”