There are serious penalties for practitioners who spread COVID anti-vaccination information, including loss of registration.
In March, the national medical boards and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulatory Agency (AHPRA) released a joint directive warning doctors, nurses and pharmacists against communicating misinformation about the COVID vaccine, either directly to patients, or via social media.
Penalties could include losing the ability to practise.
NSWNMA Assistant Secretary, Judith Kiejda, says the AHPRA warning is timely.
“We have all seen the tsunami of pseudo-medical advice floating around on social media during the pandemic. It has never been more important that we, as professionals, provide our communities with sound advice and model appropriate health-promoting behaviours,” she said.
“The Association is aware that some nurses and midwives are spreading outlandish conspiracy theories from questionable sources on the internet. Nursing and midwifery are professions that are proudly rooted in science. There is no room in our professions for this quackery.”
Experts point out that nurses have professional and legal responsibilities to practice evidence-based medicine.
“Nurses are guided by the ethical and legal requirements of the profession,” says Associate Professor Vasiliki Betihavas from the ACU’s School of Nursing, Midwifery and Paramedicine.
“Policy and procedures are developed from the best available evidence [and] it is a requirement that nurses abide by policy and procedures set by governing bodies and local health districts.
“To promote safe nursing practice, critical reasoning is paramount. Safe nursing practice requires nurses to be guided by evidence with continuous evaluation and ongoing critique.”
Be a role model
In light of research suggesting significant levels of hesitancy around the vaccine for COVID-19, nurses have an important role to play in countering misleading and false information, according to Associate Professor Betihavas.
“In Australia, each state has an approved health website. We encourage nurses to refer queries that individuals in the community may have to that website, and to encourage their colleagues to also refer to peer-reviewed literature.”
In a recent interview with the ABC, vaccine hesitancy expert Professor Julie Leask, from the University of Sydney School of Nursing, also emphasised the need to listen to people’s concerns. But she advised to not “go overboard” arguing every point.
“We can all too easily get bogged down in fact-for-fact debates about safety and the vaccines,” she said.
She said it might be helpful to explain to anyone worried about the testing and approval of vaccines that “the trials are very large and safety issues are being monitored carefully”.
But she says it is important to acknowledge people may have legitimate worries, and it is best to “avoid overconfidence until we learn more from the vaccine trials”.
She suggests nurses consider acting as an example for anyone concerned about immunisation.
“Right now, it might be enough to say, ‘I plan to get one if it’s recommended for me’ and act as a positive role model.”
Challenging COVID misinformation with the facts
Experts say it is better to challenge misinformation where it appears.
“Rather than demanding the deplatforming of the people who post misinformation, we might instead think of it as an opportunity to correct misperceptions in front of the audiences that really need it,” Adam Dunne, associate professor at the University of Sydney wrote in The Conversation.
Here are some useful websites to find empirically-based information about COVID:
Therapeutic Goods Administration provides regular updates to keep consumers, health professionals and sponsors informed of the latest regulatory developments on COVID-19 vaccines.
The World Health Organization website contains a lot of easy-to-understand information, including the facts behind a number of Coronavirus myths.
Is it true? This Australian Government Department of Health website provides accurate, evidence-based answers to questions about COVID-19 vaccines: https://www.health.gov.au/initiatives-and-programs/covid-19-vaccines/covid-19-vaccines-is-it-true
The NSW Health website – provides information about the COVID-19 rollout in NSW: www.health.nsw.gov.au/infectious/covid-19/vaccine