Unless your social circle is packed with medical professionals, I suspect you are the go-to gal/guy when there is a question about the pandemic. Seated around the fire pit trying to stay warm and socially distanced, inevitably the discussion will turn to COVID. Someone will report something they have read about vaccine side effects or the appropriate timing of isolation or quarantine and then turn to me assuming that I have inside information and ask: "But Will, you know all about that. Tell us what have you heard."
By now, well into our second year of the pandemic, my friends and neighbors should have come to expect my usual answer. "I don’t really know any more about this than you have read on the Internet or seen on television." I am flattered that folks keep asking for my observations. I guess old habits die slowly. Although I usually introduce myself as an ex-pediatrician, the "doctor" descriptor still seems to command some respect, whether it is deserved or not.
It is not just my waning ability to speak authoritatively about the pandemic that has put expertise at death’s door. Although my formal medical education is more than a half-century old, like most physicians I have tried to stay abreast of what’s happening in health care. Keeping up to date with the new developments in pathophysiology and pharmacology does take some work, but the pandemic has shone a spotlight on how quickly these changes can occur.
With the pandemic, a sense of urgency has thrust onto the world stage opinions that in the past might have been quietly held theories based on preliminary studies. However, even the most careful scientists who might otherwise have been content to patiently wait for peer review are sharing their findings prematurely with international news sources and on social media. Not surprisingly, this rush to share has generated confusion and concern and in many cases resulted in retractions or corrections. Even more importantly, it has made us all skeptical about who these "experts" are, making often disproven pronouncements.
While my friends still persist in politely asking my opinion based on the same reports we are all reading on the Internet, I sense the nation as a whole has become wary of claimed expertise. I haven’t done a Google search but I wouldn’t be surprised if "expert" gets far fewer hits than the term "so-called expert."
Even before we were engulfed by the pandemic, there has been an unfortunate phenomenon in which health care providers and other scientists are parlaying their degrees to promote products with little if any proven efficacy. Of course, this country has a long history of snake oil salesmen making their rounds. However, the electronic media and the Internet have increased the power to persuade so that we are awash in so-called experts. Many good scientists, in an attempt to be helpful, have succumbed to the sin of impatience. And there are a few who had never earned the moniker "expert."
I hope that expertise returns to the landscape when the pandemic abates. But, I fear it may be a while.
Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including "How to Say No to Your Toddler." Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.
Images: Dr William Wilkoff
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Cite this: The Death of Expertise - Medscape - Jan 13, 2022.