Pandemic spotlights growing problem: Bullying healthcare workers online

National News

(WGN) — From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the public has relied on pulmonologists, epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists to help navigate the novel coronavirus.

But one doctor said she began getting backlash on social media.

“I tried to cover a lot of topics that people had questions on, things that my patients would ask and my family and friends would ask. I would try to communicate it in an easy to understand way so that people would be able to go to their own doctors with informed questions,” said Dr. Shikha Jain, a UI health blood and cancer doctor.

Yet while working countless hours in the COVID-ICU and caring for patients and their families amid a massive death toll, she was enduring the stress of bullying.

“The things I was posting, I would tell people to wear a mask or I would recommend that they stay home to try to stay safe,” Jain said. “A lot of people are very appreciative. I have gotten a lot of positive feedback about health. But what I have found is this past year, I have had more and more people attacking me — not just my messaging, but attacking me personally. … It’s gotten a lot more aggressive and just a lot more common in the last year.”

A new study shows Jain is not alone.

Social media activity had been encouraged by healthcare organizations, especially with the threat of a new and deadly virus looming. But Northwestern, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System looked more closely at the result and found a troubling trend.

“One in 4 men and 1 in 4 women reported personal attacks,” said Dr. Seth Trueger, an ER physician at Northwestern University.

The study in the Journal of the American Medical Association predates the pandemic and documents various types of harassment.

Topical attacks were common regarding vaccines, gun control and smoking.

People lashed out at medical professionals personally about their race or religion, and some were sexually harassed, including threats of rape.

“Not at all surprisingly we found that women were much more likely to be sexually harassed,” Trueger said. “I think it was 1 in 6 women versus 1 to 2 percent of men, which was honestly lower than I expected. … Scary when you are a student and just trying to do good work.”

Tricia Pendergrast is a second-year Northwestern medical student who helps collect PPE for frontline healthcare workers and those in nursing homes and homeless shelters.

“We definitely received some emails and some posts on social media of people who were angry and belligerent about us being involved in a very polarized topic: mask-wearing,” she said.

There were threats of exposing the volunteers’ personal information and locations. But they didn’t deter her efforts.

“If anything, it made me more passionate about doing this work,” Pendergrast said. “We need to, as groups of physicians, as institutions and employers, we need to plan for that harassment when it happens so we’re able to support trainees. Because what we can’t have us losing those voices from social media.”

Doctors said if they had isolated their research to strictly cover the pandemic, they believe the incidence of harassment would be even higher.

Despite the bullying, Jain said she is driven by responsibility.

“I’m very proud of the work that myself and my colleagues have been able to do in the space to try to get information out,” she said.

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