Campus News

Addressing medical disinformation topic of new grant

A woman looks concerned as she talks to a medical professional.


Published August 1, 2022

Nicholas Fusco Photographer: Douglas Levere.
“It is a team effort to dispel medical misinformation and vaccine hesitancy, as well as a team effort to develop this educational innovation. ”
Nicholas M. Fusco, clinical associate professor
Department of Pharmacy Practice

UB is one of five universities nationwide that has been awarded a grant from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) to support teaching health sciences students how to dispel medical disinformation.

The grants are part of a national strategic initiative developed by the AAMC with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to increase confidence in COVID-19 vaccines and address medical misinformation and mistrust by educating health sciences students.

In 2019, the World Health Organization had already identified vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global public health — and that was before the pandemic.

“Achieving this national recognition is extraordinary for the University at Buffalo and an important step in stopping the spread of disinformation that negatively impacts efforts to combat COVID-19,” says Allison Brashear, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. “Clinicians and learners across UB’s health sciences schools are uniquely positioned to work with their patients and public audiences to address health misinformation.”

The goal of the UB project is to develop an interprofessional education (IPE) experience for all of UB’s health sciences students in the Jacobs School, the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the School of Nursing, the School of Dental Medicine and the School of Public Health and Health Professions.

UB students will begin the new training program as a pilot starting this fall.

The UB project was developed by co-principal investigators Nicholas M. Fusco, PharmD, clinical associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Alison M. Vargovich, clinical assistant professor in the Division of Behavioral Medicine in the Department of Medicine in the Jacobs School.

“Medical misinformation and vaccine hesitancy are touched on in each respective program’s curricula,” says Fusco. “What makes this program innovative is, it is interprofessional and provides students the opportunity to practice skills they are taught in a team-based environment.”

Health sciences students at UB will learn, together with their peers from other professions, about how they can work as a team to tackle medical misinformation and disinformation.

The goal is to ultimately improve trust between health professions students and the patients and communities they serve. A key step is providing trainees with a framework to approach these conversations effectively and respectfully.

“The public may see or hear things that are misrepresented or false,” says Fusco. “Convincing them otherwise is challenging, given the emotional and politically charged relationship that has developed between health care and the public. It is a team effort to dispel medical misinformation and vaccine hesitancy, as well as a team effort to develop this educational innovation, which would not be possible without the creative expertise of our research team.”

Educational modules will focus on misinformation, interprofessional approaches, vaccine hesitancy and evidence-based communication practices. Students will be asked to apply this knowledge first to virtual simulation scenarios and then to in-person simulations using standardized patients to reinforce the information they have learned.

“Educating our health professions students to approach conversations with patients about vaccine hesitancy using specific evidence-based strategies reduces variability and strengthens patient outcomes,” says Patricia J. Ohtake, assistant vice president for interprofessional education and associate professor of rehabilitation science, School of Public Health and Health Professions. “Using an interprofessional approach ensures members of the health care team are consistent in their approach to discussing vaccine hesitancy and are able to support previous conversations patients may have had with other health care team members.”

Toward productive conversations

“The idea is never to force a patient to change, in part because that doesn’t work,” Vargovich says, “but to learn how to have productive conversations that hopefully result in patients reconsidering their viewpoint, or at least being more open to continued discussion.

“From a personal perspective, I think all of us as health care providers have to navigate addressing misinformation with patients, loved ones and on social media, which is not an easy thing to do,” Vargovich notes. “What works best is to move away from logic and arguments, and lean into empathy and curiosity. By trying to understand their concerns and how they developed that point of view, rather than arguing against it, we are better able to address the root cause of the false belief.”

Two strategies are typically used when addressing misinformation and the development of false beliefs held by patients. One focuses on the information deficit model, where providing education may be all that is needed to help a patient update their beliefs, while the second strategy provides a framework for patients who are resistant to change and have more strongly held views related to misinformation.

“What we know is that shaming or belittling others never works, whether personally or professionally, so being able to have a conversation, but also knowing when to pull back, is important so we don’t cause others to become more deeply engrained in these misbeliefs,” Vargovich says.

Focus on scientific literacy

The project is part of a larger effort at UB addressing medical misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. In the Jacobs School, the curriculum is undergoing a complete redesign and one of its primary pillars is a focus on scientific literacy and inquiry led by Vargovich and Robert Taylor, professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and assistant dean and director of the MD-PhD program.

In addition to Fusco and Vargovich, the UB team on the AAMC grant includes Kelly Foltz-Ramos, director of simulation and assistant professor, School of Nursing; Jessica Kruger, clinical assistant professor, Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, School of Public Health and Health Professions; and William A. Prescott Jr., chair of the Department of Pharmacy Practice, School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.