Bullying healthcare workers online: Pandemic has put the spotlight on a growing problem

From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we relied on well-respected pulmonologists, epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists to help us navigate the novel coronavirus.

As time went on one doctor told WGN’s Medical Watch she could not appear on the air for awhile because she was getting such caustic backlash on social media.

In addition to working countless hours in the COVID-ICU and caring for patients and their families amid the massive death toll, this physician was enduring the stress of bullying.

Now a new study shows, sadly, she was not alone.

Dr. Shikha Jain is a UI health blood and cancer doctor. But she knew her responsibility went beyond her field in the pandemic.

“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,” Jain said. “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.”

And as the pandemic wore on Jain’s message expanded.

“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,” she 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.”

Jain posted a light hearted tweet about working from home.

The responses were rapid and cruel. One said they get to “laugh at f-ing morons like her.”

The name calling included political and sexual insults.

In her mind, she is not driven by privilege, instead 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.

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

Dr Seth Trueger is an ER physician at Northwestern.

“One in four men and one in four women reported personal attacks,” he said.

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 they 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 one in six women vs one to two 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 facing the venom has only emboldened 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.