‘Hoax’ is not part of Anni Saukkola’s vocabulary. This is surprising because Saukkola is a doctor who swears by scientifically tested knowledge.
Today, stories pushing detoxes and alternative therapies like homeopathy compete on nearly equal terms with academic medical knowledge in online news, and often also in the mainstream media. These are medical hoaxes, aren’t they?
According to Saukkola, that is often the case. However, she avoids making value judgements in her profession, so she has banned herself from using the word ‘hoax’.
“Claiming that there is only science on the one hand and hoaxes on the other would just add fuel to the fire of controversies and binary thinking. In real life, people do not choose one or the other. Instead, we all navigate the flood of information as best we can,” Saukkola says.
She is an active social media doctor whose main opponent is bad, inaccurate and biased ‘science communication’ in both social and traditional media. The best way to fight it is to disseminate correct information in an easy and interesting manner.
In 2019, Saukkola graduated with a Licentiate of Medicine degree from Tampere University. Her choice of career was no coincidence, but neither was it a calling.
“I did not experience a sudden epiphany about becoming a doctor. It was more of a practical choice because I liked challenges and studying science subjects at school. I thought medicine would combine the two,” she says.
However, medicine became her dream field almost as soon as her studies started.
“At Tampere University, the studies are very practically oriented right from the start. So, we got a taste of what our goal or reward would be after we graduated, which was very motivating and offered new insights,” Saukkola notes.
Since graduation, Saukkola has worked in Jyväskylä and Helsinki. She also works as a communications consultant for the healthcare service company Terveystalo.
She knows that the combination sounds like a dream come true to many newly graduated students.
“In my work as a physician, I get to help people and relieve their pain, which is very important to me. At the same time, there are plenty of jobs and the diverse work of a doctor has shown me opportunities that I could not even have imagined while I was still a student,” she explains.
In addition to working as a doctor, Saukkola is an active influencer on social media. She is one of the founders of the Tiedenaiset (Women scholars) community, which was set up in the summer of 2019. It is a collective of eight experts from different fields who post short texts, photos and videos on their areas of expertise on Instagram.
“We found out that there was a demand for this. People are fed up with not being able to trust what is published on social media,” Saukkola says.
Now we are getting closer to the hoaxes Saukkola wants to avoid. She takes a moment to think and notes that online health stories circulate things that are best described by the word ‘hoax’.
Such things include colloidal silver and the black salve used to treat skin cancer, among other things. Their beneficial effects have not been scientifically proven and, at worst, these substances are detrimental to health.
“Many alternative treatments are useless but harmless. However, we move into dangerous waters if we begin to apply alternative medicine and ignore real medical treatments,” Saukkola cautions.
If biased health communications start to prevail, trust in both scientific knowledge and doctors will weaken. Saukkola does not even want to convert those who have a blind faith in alternative treatments, since that would be futile. Instead, she wishes to influence the greater majority that weigh up the diverse health information published online, for example, vaccine hesitancy that is veiled as scientific knowledge. “They need reliable help,” Saukkola says.
“They are the ones wondering whether they should take the voluntary HPV vaccine, or an influenza shot that is harmless and the best possible solution both personally and for public health. And then they decide not to take them based on hearsay,” she explains.
Most of the questionable health communications lie somewhere in the grey area of scientific knowledge: some research results may be used, but the communications are in fact a harmful business. Dietary supplements, special diets, reflexology and crystal healing are examples of harmless but scientifically ineffective treatments.
“They are mainly used by academically educated women. I wish I knew why,” Saukkola sighs.
Saukkola would like to see more doctors on social media as experts in their speciality. Saukkola can count the doctors seen on social media on the fingers of one hand. Excluding herself and Jenni Puoliväli from Tiedenaiset, doctors do not systematically use social media to disseminate medical knowledge.
“Doctors should be where the people are, and today especially teenagers and young adults are on social media. I saw a niche where I can use my expertise,” Saukkola says.
The beginning was awkward, or at least intimidating. Taking on new media and adopting a persona induces anxiety, which Saukkola experienced at first.
“I thought other doctors would kill me and say that I’m on social media because I do not know how to treat patients. Then I decided the worst thing that could happen was to have no readers, and if that transpired, so what?” Saukkola explains.
She notes that this is how the human mind works.
“It creates a bubble where you believe that everyone is interested in what you are saying, but they are not,” she points out.
The feedback has been positive, and smart doctors should have the courage to appear on social media because it may be the only way to counter misinformation disguised as real medical knowledge. Otherwise, the spaces and voices are taken up by biased half-truths and people with an agenda.
Saukkola believes doctors should have the courage to clearly disagree on such things as, for example, chronic pain, the approaches and perspectives to which may differ significantly among pharmacologists, orthopaedists, psychiatrists and neurologists. For the average person, the most important thing is that the different perspectives are based on scientific knowledge. Saukkola also raises the example of the Lääkäri-podi podcasts with Jenni Puoliväli.
“Not everyone is on social media, and this is a way to reach out to others. We host specialists from various fields and want to discuss issues in an understandable manner,” Saukkola says.
Saukkola has noticed that different generations have different relationships with doctors.
“For elderly people, doctors are still in a position of authority,” she says.
As society changes, authorities are becoming increasingly questioned. At the same time, younger generations are searching for information online. At worst, it means the patients overdiagnose themselves or ‘shop’ for diagnoses. At best, however, an informed discussion with a doctor may lead to the correct diagnosis and proper treatment sooner.
“A doctor is able to meet patients on the emotional level, but also to think about their conditions objectively,” Saukkola notes.
The authority of doctors is not disappearing, but they need to work more in order to retain it. According to Saukkola, empathy is one of the most important skills a doctor can possess, both in clinics and on social media.
“The ability to identify with people: I might not have been very good at identifying with unemployed older men, but I have gotten better. People do not have to agree all the time, but they can still understand each other,” Saukkola says.