Author: Molly Fessler
The case for curiosity
The 2023 Building Trust Essay Contest, sponsored by The American Medical Student Association and the ABIM Foundation, asked medical students to engage in a reflective writing exercise about their experiences where they or someone they know received, shared, or acted upon misinformation in a health care setting
A sneeze issued from the tent as we approached.
“Anybody home? Street medicine outreach,” my preceptor called out.
The tent’s mouth unzipped, the canvas falling inward to reveal our patient, a young man. Our street medicine team frequented these community campsites on a biweekly basis, providing medical care to individuals experiencing homelessness.
I knelt down, offering a cup of coffee.
“How are you today?”
Our patient shook his head.
“Not so good,” he coughed, cheeks flushed. He’d become ill yesterday; fever, malaise, sore throat, cough. Four days ago he’d had a meal at a soup kitchen–one our team knew was the site of a recent COVID-19 outbreak.
After hearing his history, I asked, “Can we get you a COVID test today?” Our patient looked up sharply. I was aware of him taking in my N-95, the pro-vaccination pin on my lanyard.
“Nah,” he said, “that COVID thing is a hoax.”
Immediately, my heart began to beat with agitation. I couldn’t ignore his provocation: the presentation of false facts, my own knowledge questioned, and, of course, the public health ramifications of his belief.
How dare he claim COVID-19 was a hoax?
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report found that 78% of those surveyed “believed or were unsure about at least one false statement,” related to COVID-19.1 COVID-19 misinformation has created a second pandemic; loss of trust in scientific institutions, failure to evaluate credible information, and a lack of agreement among neighbors on even the most basic set of facts. COVID-19 misinformation is “a powerfully destructive force…one false idea can spread instantly to many vulnerable ears.”2
But while it is true that misinformation is a tremendous burden to our collective public health, so too is the way we speak of those who espouse it. We shake our heads at the “ignorance,” and lament the “selfishness,” of those who eschew medical recommendations, effectively creating silos of “us” versus “them,” that pit clinicians against patients. Infrequently, however, do we attempt to understand the lure of misinformation. It is not often that we stop to consider how misinformation may make sense to those for whom our health care system has not traditionally worked well.
Our patients experiencing homelessness have good reason to mistrust health care; unhoused patients contend with profound bias, stigma, and mistreatment in medical institutions.3 So too do our patients of color; we have yet to demonstrate, in health care or society, that we value the lives of Black, Indigenous, or Latinx Americans.4
Misinformation results from a lack of trust in one another, a fundamental breach in our ability to communicate respectfully. Mitigating misinformation can only begin when we endeavor to understand its origins.
In her book, I Never Thought About It That Way, Mónica Guzmán makes the case for changing our approach toward those with whom we disagree. She argues for curiosity as an antidote to the partisan isolation of our current discourse. Instead of attacking one another on the merits, or perceived lack-there-of, of our arguments, our inability to communicate with one another must be the starting point to engagement.5
We must approach misinformation the same way.
In my own life, I have witnessed the destructive power of false belief. A close family member refused to be vaccinated for COVID-19, subsequently failing to meet my son until more than a year after his birth. I have a parent who struggles with the neurologic sequelae of long COVID-19, frequently tasked with convincing others their symptoms are real. As I try to navigate how to keep my children safe, in a world ready to move on, I meet unvaccinated patients, in clinic and on the streets, who assert that COVID-19 is fake, overblown, or a conspiracy. I am usually frustrated, occasionally devastated, and often terrified by the hold misinformation has on our communities.
But I have learned enough, from my mentors and my time working with unhoused patients, to know that building bridges back to health care and community is hard. Building trust, both within our hospital walls and at our dinner tables, on the curb or in the clinic, requires patience, grace, and yes, curiosity. Guzmán offers this advice: “When you want to stop listening so you can react or respond or judge…mind that gap between what you know and what you most certainly don’t and ask one more curious question.”5
We must attempt to see one another, before we try to change one another. I faced my patient and took a deep breath.
“Tell me more,” I said.
Molly is an incoming PGY-0 in the Psychiatry department at Duke University. She studied sociology and peace studies at Bryn Mawr College before serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Belize from 2014 to 2016. She is the co-founder of Auxocardia Journal, a creative space for health professional students, and previously served on the board of the University of Michigan Medical School’s Wolverine Street Medicine, leading foot care efforts for persons experiencing homelessness and medical education initiatives. She is a 2022-2023 Albert Schweitzer Fellow in the Detroit cohort, member of the Gold Humanism Honor Society, and AOA.
1. Hamel L, Lopes L, Kirzinger A, Sparks G, Strokes M, Bridle M. Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 vaccine monitor: media & misinformation. KFF Reports. 2021. Accessed March 2, 2023.
2. Nelson T, Kagan N, Critchlow C, Hillard A, Hsu A. The danger of misinformation in the COVID-19 crisis. Mo Med. 2020;117(6):510-512.
3. Reilly J, Ho I, Williamson A. A systematic review of the effect of stigma on the health of people experiencing homelessness. Health Soc Care Community. 2022;30(6):2128-2141. 4. Manning KD. More than medical mistrust. Lancet. 2020;396(10261):1481-1482. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(20)32286-8
5. Guzmán M. I Never Thought of It That Way. 1st ed. BenBella Books; March 8, 2022.