Dr. David Lussier spreads the Montreal University Institute of Geriatrics’ message on social networks

David Lussier

David Lussier

Credit: Amélie Philibert

In 5 seconds

To get accurate information out there during the pandemic, geriatrician David Lussier is sharing his expertise on seniors, chronic pain and end-of-life care.

In March 2011, Dr. David Lussier, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Montreal, associate director of innovation and knowledge application at the Montreal University Institute of Geriatrics (IUGM) research centre, and scientific director of IUGM’s AvantÂge program, signed up for a Twitter account out of curiosity. He had given columnist Patrick Lagacé an interview about seniors and he wanted to see the reaction from Lagacé’s Twitter followers.

Today, over 25,600 people follow Dr. Lussier on Twitter!

Lussier, a three-time UdeM graduate (psychology 1991, medicine 1995, clinical sciences 2000), also has a professional account on Facebook, but he doesn’t often update his page and comments on developments in his fields of expertise mainly on Twitter.

We asked him about his motivation for tweeting and how he sorts through the flood of messages in his Twitter feed.

What is your goal in making your voice heard on social media? Why do you feel it’s important?

I have three objectives:

  1. Give accurate, high-quality information on the subjects I know about. It’s distressing to see information I know to be false out there.
  2. Talk about issues I care about, such as seniors, chronic pain and end-of-life care.
  3. Raise the IUGM’s profile. Until recently, it was little known, but now it’s more in the public eye.

At the same time, I’m learning about all sorts of subjects. I’ve met colleagues and heard about their experiences, which has been very helpful with my own projects. I take part in private conversations. For example, I talk to health professionals from across Quebec and we discuss the issues we face in our respective practices.

Twitter also gives me information from users about their experiences with the health care system and their concerns. Then I try to do something about those problems.

Are you trying to reach the people spreading disinformation or the people who might believe it?

There has been more disinformation since the COVID-19 pandemic began and more needs to be done to fight it. But other people are doing a fine job debunking fake news and that’s not my main goal. I’m trying to provide information that may not be readily available on a variety of topics, including but not limited to COVID-19.

To fight disinformation, I target the people who are liable to believe it, not the people behind it. Trying to dispel their misconceptions and persuade them takes a lot of energy and the chances of success are slim, so I think it’s more important to speak to the people who are or potentially could be victims of disinformation.

Are you concerned that the disinformation will spread?

Not really. The vast majority of people get their information from reliable sources. People who spread disinformation are vastly overrepresented on social media and it creates the impression that they’re a large group, but it remains a very limited problem in my opinion.

What is your strategy to avoid getting sucked into quarrels?

First, I have a simple rule: I don’t post anything on social media that I wouldn’t say to a traditional media outlet or in person, be it to a political figure such as a minister, one of my patients or a family member. 

Some of my comments on social media have been quoted in the mainstream media and you always have to bear that possibility in mind.

Secondly, if I’m talking about a case I find interesting for public consideration, I change the details so that even the patient won’t recognize themselves. I extract the points that are relevant to the discussion, without necessarily trying to be accurate; it isn’t a case report in a scientific journal. 

I never reveal privileged or confidential information, such as information I acquired at my institution or on a Ministry of Health and Social Services committee. I also don’t comment on subjects on which I have an official or definite position, such as medical assistance in dying, because I’m on the Commission on End-of-Life Care. So in that case I provide information but never an opinion, unless it’s the Commission’s official position. The same applies to long-term care and CHSLDs, since I sit on a ministerial committee on the subject.

Finally, I never criticize my CIUSSS [health and social services centre] or my university on social media. If I have a comment or criticism about a specific issue involving them, I tell the appropriate people.

When someone responds aggressively to your comments, how do you react?

It depends. If it’s a personal attack, I ignore it. It was hard at first, but you get used to it. There’s no point confronting the person or getting into an argument.

If someone reacts negatively or aggressively to facts that I know to be true, I politely correct their misapprehensions if they seem to be acting in good faith. Sometimes it works. Many people are cranky after two years of pandemic and shoot from the hip, but they’re acting in good faith.

When someone stubbornly denies the seriousness of the pandemic or the usefulness and safety of vaccines, I block them.

What advice do you have for colleagues who want to comment on social media?

You have to be thick-skinned and not take it personally when people who distrust experts make comments or attack you on the pandemic or other subjects, as they certainly will.

I recommend not giving out too much personal information, such as where you live, the places you frequent, your children’s names or their school, not even photos. In these polarized times, you can’t be too careful.

Also, as an expert who posts on social media, you will probably get interview requests from traditional media outlets. If you do, you have to avoid two pitfalls: becoming an armchair quarterback who comments on something when he doesn’t know the details, and trying to be an expert on everything, who gives interviews on matters outside his area of expertise at the risk of losing credibility with the public and his peers.

As a health care professional, I also believe that we have a responsibility to the public. If we comment on a health care issue, we have a duty not to unduly alarm people about the care they are receiving or may need in the future. So we should avoid untimely or catastrophizing statements.

Last but not least, do it if you enjoy it! We already have busy schedules and being on social media shouldn’t be an added task.

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