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Half-Truths and Misinformation: How #FakeNews on Social Media Hurts the Sterile Processing Industry

When you have a particular instrument sterilization question, who do you ask? When you’re not sure what an instrument is called or the correct procedure for decontaminating an HIV+ case cart, where do you go for answers? As argued in a recent NewSplash article, more and more of these questions today are being posed online where anyone can ask and, more importantly for the purposes of this article, anyone can answer.

Even though the educational content revolution we are now seeing in the sterile processing industry via social media platforms is primarily a positive thing, admittedly there is a very real and dangerous aspect that must be dealt with head on. That challenge is the same one we hear so much about on network television: #FakeNews. Unlike the political arm wrestling we see in the media, when this type of misinformation is brought into the hospital setting, it can really hurt someone.

The potential scope of the problem
For example, let’s take a question about an instrument’s instructions for use (IFU). Besides instrument identification, IFU inquiries are some of the most common posts you will see on online social media platforms asking for input from other members. The following are a couple real examples.

It’s important to note that asking these types of questions is not necessarily the problem. In fact, if there are SPD professionals on the front line who do not know how to properly and compliantly reprocess their instrumentation, asking questions is exactly what we want them to do. We would never encourage a team member to “just do it how you’ve always done it” or guess at the best action to take in that particular situation. No, we want there to be an open, supportive community in our hospitals and within the broader industry for folks to ask any question they may have to best protect their patients.

If you look back at those examples above, the potential danger actually lies in the sheer amount of answers given to these inquiries: 132 comments on the first, and 181 on the second. This is where a few other important questions arise:

  • Who are these commenters? How do we know they have competence in the field?
  • How can we determine which of the 132 answers is the right one? The one with the most likes at the end of the thread?
  • What if the person answering doesn’t completely understand the question or issue that was posed? Won’t their answer be incomplete at best and completely wrong at worst?

Because we often do not know the people on the other end of these social media platforms—what they know and what they don’t—putting the lives of our patients on the line to trust their answers is not a wise or sustainable solution. As helpful as most of these users are trying to be, the end result is often an unintelligible mix of opinions, humor, personal asides, short quips, half-truths, and misinformation.

The possible solutions for the profession
The truth of the matter is that social media is not going away. More and more sterile processing professionals will be logging in and following along with these types of conversations every day. This is now our reality as an industry, so there is no such thing as putting our heads in the sand and hoping the potential dangers of #FakeNews go away. While I don’t have all the answers for how to guard our frontline technicians from misinformation online, there are two important steps that I believe are necessary to keep moving us toward better understanding and more trustworthy sources of information.

  • Actual subject matter experts must engage
    As disheartening as it may be to real subject matter experts to see so many errors and half-truths bouncing around on the internet, this dynamic should prove the true depth of the need for your voice to be heard on these topics. If you’re an expert in detergent use, start a weekly blog to push good content into these pages. If you have training in validation testing, be the first to weigh in on related questions and include your experience and credentials so people know where you are coming from. The more voices we have from real experts, the more likely it is that users will get the right answers for their patients.
  • Brands must acknowledge their responsibility to online conversations
    One of the biggest opportunities to win the war on #FakeNews in sterile processing is for industry manufacturers and distributors to leverage their social media audiences to educate users, not merely market their products. The amount of available educational resources across existing industry vendors is truly staggering when you look at it, but the further you get from corporate websites and conference halls, finally ending up on social media, the amount of regular educational content slows to a mere drip. The sooner manufacturers view their social media platforms as an arm for education as well as marketing, the better off frontline users will be when product-related questions come up on their newsfeed.

As with every technology, social media platforms come with their own pros and cons. With massive reach and networking potential, sterile processing users are able to connect in ways that previous generations could never have dreamed. However, with this massive reach has come the real potential for misinformation to reach the eyes and ears of frontline technicians just trying to make sure they do their jobs right. Instead of turning our backs on the problem and running away, we owe it to those users and the patients they care for to do the hard thing and step into the fray.

What say you?

Feature articles exclusively for Ultra Clean Systems by Weston “Hank” Balch, BS, MDiv, CRCST, CER, CIS, CHL

Weapon of Mass Microbial Destruction * Professional Clean Freak * Podcast Host * Safety Addict * CS/SPD Consultant

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