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Original research
Establishing a taxonomy of potential hazards associated with communicating medical science in the age of disinformation
  1. David Robert Grimes1,2,
  2. Laura J Brennan3,
  3. Robert O'Connor4
  1. 1 School of Physical Sciences, Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland
  2. 2 Department of Oncology, University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire, UK
  3. 3 Not applicable (patient advocate, deceased), Ennis, Munster, Ireland
  4. 4 Irish Cancer Society, Dublin, Ireland
  1. Correspondence to Dr David Robert Grimes; davidrobert.grimes{at}


Objectives Disinformation on medical matters has become an increasing public health concern. Public engagement by scientists, clinicians and patient advocates can contribute towards public understanding of medicine. However, depth of feeling on many issues (notably vaccination and cancer) can lead to adverse reactions for those communicating medical science, including vexatious interactions and targeted campaigns. Our objective in this work is to establish a taxonomy of common negative experiences encountered by those communicating medical science, and suggest guidelines so that they may be circumvented.

Design We establish a taxonomy of the common negative experiences reported by those communicating medical science, informed by surveying medical science communicators with public platforms.

Participants 142 prominent medical science communicators (defined as having >1000 Twitter followers and experience communicating medical science on social and traditional media platforms) were invited to take part in a survey, with 101 responses.

Results 101 responses were analysed. Most participants experienced abusive behaviour (91.9%), including persistent harassment (69.3%) and physical violence and intimidation (5.9%). A substantial number (38.6%) received vexatious complaints to their employers, professional bodies or legal intimidation. The majority (62.4%) reported negative mental health sequelae due to public outreach, including depression, anxiety and stress. A significant minority (19.8%) were obligated to seek police advice or legal counsel due to actions associated with their outreach work. While the majority targeted with vexatious complaints felt supported by their employer/professional body, 32.4% reported neutral, poor or non-existent support.

Conclusions Those engaging in public outreach of medical science are vulnerable to negative repercussions, and we suggest guidelines for professional bodies and organisations to remedy some of these impacts on front-line members.

  • public health
  • infectious diseases
  • oncology
  • medical journalism
  • medical education & training

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See:

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  • Deceased Dr Laura J Brennan deceased on 20 March 2019.

  • Contributors DRG, LJB and RO conceived the concept for this paper, and worked on survey design. DRG and RO performed the analysis and wrote the manuscript.

  • Funding DRG is supported by the Wellcome Trust (Grant number 214461/Z/18/Z).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data are available upon reasonable request. All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplementary information. Deidentified participant data can be supplied upon reasonable request. Survey design included in standard supplementary material.