Doctors turn to social media to develop COVID-19 solutions in real time

Tribune Content Agency

The step-by-step protocols that doctors learn in medical school just weren’t stopping the new coronavirus from killing people.

There is a classic process for treating respiratory problems: First, give the patient an oxygen mask, or slide a small tube into the nose to provide an extra jolt of oxygen. If that’s not enough, use a “Bi-Pap” machine, which pushes air into the lungs more forcefully. If that fails, move to a ventilator, which takes over the patient’s breathing.

But these procedures tend to fail With COVID-19 patients. Physicians found that by the time they reached that last step, it was often too late; the patient was already dying.

In past pandemics like the 2003 global SARS outbreak, doctors sought answers to such mysteries from colleagues in hospital lounges or maybe penned articles for medical journals. It could take weeks or months for news of a breakthrough to reach the broader community.

For COVID-19, a kind of medical hive mind is on the case. By the tens of thousands, doctors are joining specialized social media groups to develop answers in real time. One of them, a Facebook group called the PMG COVID19 Subgroup, has 30,000 members worldwide.

“If you had someone in resp(iratory) failure and you didn’t have help, what would you want to know?” a critical care doctor wrote in a March 12 posting to the group.

Comments poured in. Italian pulmonary specialists gave video lectures viewed by thousands. Others shared experiences and data from China and other countries already ravaged by the virus. They learned that the best chance of saving a COVID-19 patient is to turn almost immediately to ventilators after intubating the patient.

That was a breakthrough, said Dr. Hala Sabry, 41, who manages the online group. “If someone has respiratory failure, you skip oxygen and go straight to intubation.”

In what may be the first pandemic of the social media age, doctors face a highly contagious virus that has already infected more than 375,000 people and killed more than 16,000 worldwide amid a shortage of needed supplies, including surgical masks and ventilators. Governments and established groups, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have struggled to keep up.

Doctors are trying to fill an information void online. Sabry, an emergency room doctor in two hospitals outside Los Angeles, found that the 70,000-strong, Physician Moms Group she started five years ago on Facebook was so overwhelmed by coronavirus threads that she created the COVID-19 offshoot. So many doctors tried to join the new subgroup that Facebook’s click-to-join code broke. Some 10,000 doctors waited in line as the social media company’s engineers devised a fix.

Similar groups started by Dr. Nisha Mehta, a 38-year-old radiologist in Charlotte, N.C., are also consumed by coronavirus issues. “We have already saved a large number of lives just by sharing information about social distancing, propagating stories from the front lines, helping with diagnosis and treatment and connecting physicians to other sources,” Mehta said.

On Twitter, Brief19, a group formed by three emergency room doctors, posts a daily roundup of information and policy on the pandemic. Created on March 20, the group already has 2,500 followers. Its Twitter bio, for location, lists: “Everywhere, unfortunately.”

One of the Brief19 doctors, Jeremy Faust of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, also co-hosts a 6-year-old podcast that focuses on “what’s hot” in emergency medicine. Last week, he and co-host Lauren Westafer, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at University of Massachusetts Medical School Baystate, moved to a daily analysis of the flood of nascent data that’s coming online in so-called “pre-print,” or rough draft, articles from researchers and medical journals about COVID-19 and related topics. Thousands of doctors are tuning in, greeted by this warning:

“We are going to try to bring you daily updates on COVID-19. There is a firehose of information and most of us are too busy to read and digest it all. Note: If you are listening to these more than a few days in the future, please beware that information may have changed and check subsequent episodes.”

“Some of the things that we are talking about, some of the ideas that are being spread, are really smart but aren’t necessarily part of our usual approach to critically ill patients,” Faust said in an interview. “It’s not intuitive or obvious, but it makes sense once you hear it.”

There are downsides to this rapid information-sharing: The accelerated pace can lead to mistakes — and there’s no time for the exhaustive study needed to assure new approaches are as safe as they can be. Medical journals like the New England Journal of Medicine are rushing out novel findings online before they’ve been fully reviewed. But even the most deliberated change in medical thinking can later be debunked, and health care is constantly evolving.

“That’s how medicine works,” Sabry said. “You learn from other people to not make the same mistakes so people won’t die.”

These global doctor’s lounges have grappled with some thorny questions. In the second week of March, Dr. Christina Lang, a 37-year-old emergency room physician in Modesto, Calif., was alarmed by some physicians’ online chatter: Some patients appeared to get sicker when taking ibuprofen, a ubiquitous pain and fever-reducing pill taken by millions of people every day. Could patients be hurt just by taking a widely available pill when coronavirus’s fever began to set in?

A research letter published by the medical journal Lancet on March 11 suggested that ibuprofen, which is sold under brand names including Motrin and Advil, had the potential to increase the number of receptors the virus uses to hijack healthy human cells and spread.

That preliminary information, which normally is used to generate ideas for future studies, kick-started deep conversations among doctors on social media. French Health Minister Olivier Veran tweeted that patients should eschew ibuprofen for acetaminophen, a different pain reliever and fever-reducer that’s sold in the U.S. as Tylenol. “This grabbed our interest,” Lang said.

Normal arbiters of medical information were of little help. The World Health Organization issued conflicting reports. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it had no evidence that certain pain medicines could worsen an infection, but pointed out that there are other options available. An investigation is underway.

Doctors dug into the question online. Lang, who’s on maternity leave from her hospital job, went to an online group of 1,000 doctors that she helps run and called in infectious disease and public health specialists. As they evaluated the data, the site’s algorithm opened up the floor to hundreds of additional doctors, and their comments spread across other doctors’ groups online. One thread branched into another, and then another. Debate raged.

“It’s a little bit like the wild west,” Lang noted. “We are turning to these groups to get the latest information. We want to make sure the science is evaluated and you can back it up.”

Groups have taken differing positions. By March 17, the specialists in Lang’s Openxmed group made up their minds: They concluded it wasn’t worth the risk to keep coronavirus patients on ibuprofen. They could just switch to Tylenol. The larger COVID19 group reached a similar conclusion. But the thousands of doctors in Mehta’s group were less convinced, deciding there wasn’t enough evidence to change practice.

“You have to understand that medicine isn’t black or white,” Sabry said. “It’s a whole world of gray.”

On other topics, online discussions — like one at a “hub” for infectious diseases set up by the American College of Emergency Physicians – have had clear, potentially life-saving impacts on how patients are evaluated and treated.

At the Jack D. Weiler Hospital in the Bronx, N.Y., a 70-year-old woman came in with a mild fever, nausea and vomiting that was causing low blood pressure. Doctors initially thought it might be a typical seasonal illness, said Deborah White, vice chair of emergency medicine at the facility.

Then doctors in Washington, where an outbreak in a nursing home led to the first U.S. hot zone, noted on the ACEP hub that many older COVID-19 patients exhibited mainly gastrointestinal issues like nausea and diarrhea. Back in the Bronx, the 70-year-old patient immediately hit doctors’ radar screen as a potential coronavirus case. The hospital – which helps care for patients of nearby nursing homes — started grouping all elderly patients with gastrointestinal symptoms and low blood pressure together as potential COVID-19 patients, a process called cohorting.

“That became a paramount piece of information for us,” White said, noting that previously such patients were often sent back home or returned to nursing homes with orders of bed rest and a simple diet. Now, however, some of those patients are testing positive. Cohorting, she noted, isn’t traditionally done in such cases, but instant information-sharing allowed a rapid, important change.

“This is what we do, pivoting in the very moment,” White said. “It’s the bread and butter of emergency medicine.”


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