Coronavirus fake news causing patients to refuse hospital admission, medics tell MPs

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Coronavirus patients are refusing to be admitted to hospital because of fake news messages on WhatsApp saying doctors will kill them, frontline medics have warned MPs.

Dr Megan Emma Smith, a senior consultant anesthetist, said she was seeing patients arrive at hospital “unbelievably sick” because social media misinformation had frightened them into not coming or into trying quack remedies instead.

Appearing before the culture select committee on Thursday, a 111 operator also warned that misleading posts about Covid-19 had “eroded” public trust in the NHS and said he was having to convince callers that doctors and nurses were “on their side”.

The comments came as MPs investigated the impact of fake news during the pandemic and what measures social media giants are taking to suppress potentially deadly misinformation.

Dr Smith, based at the Royal Free Hopsital in London, said many virus patients she was treating were so sick that they needed to be put on a ventilator within an hour of admission. She said this was because they were “afraid” to come to hospital and were instead trying “alternative remedies” they had read about online, such as gargling salt water. 

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Speaking of the experiences of some of her colleagues, Dr Smith added: “One [doctor] has experience of the Asian and Pakistani community in the north-west where, via WhatsApp, there is a lot of circulation of information suggesting that if you go to hospital the doctors won’t look after you and what they will do is effectively kill you. 

“They will give you an injection, make you comfortable and leave you to die. So lots of people have not come to the hospital because of that.”

Thomas Knowles, an advanced paramedic practitioner and 111 operator, told the committee he had had “many conversations” with callers who had stopped taking blood pressure or pain relief medication because of misinformation they had read on social media.

He said: “There have been lots of bits of information that have eroded trust in the health service, and that is a major issue. Again, there have been people where I have had to have quite extended coverations where I am trying to convince them that we are on their side.”

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