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When doctors and parents clash, social media storms are causing too much collateral damage

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On 25 April, the chair and the chief executive of Alder Hey Children’s Foundation Trust, where Alfie Evans was cared for until his death, published an open letter explaining that the organisation, its staff and even its patients and visitors had been attacked, threatened, abused and intimidated.

The abuse had taken place not only on social media but also on the trust’s premises – to the point where a police presence was needed to “keep our patients, staff and visitors safe”.

As the letter rightly said, this is unacceptable. Indeed, despite their distress, Alfie’s parents apologised for the intimidation and abuse perpetrated in their son’s name.

“Traditional media have once again shown that they’re more interested in tear-jerking and outrage-provoking headlines than in balanced reporting.”

Like many, I am touched by Alfie Evans’ personal story, as well as by his parents’ determination to keep him alive. Terminal disease in young children is particularly heartbreaking. But the wider story, the one that developed in the media and on social media around the child’s treatment, stirs up sentiments that are uncomfortable.

Traditional media outlets have once again shown that they are more interested in tear-jerking and outrage-provoking headlines than in balanced reporting. The audience loves a bit of real-life drama unfolding before their eyes. You would be naive to believe that compassion was the reason why Alfie’s parents obtained so much media coverage.

Social media have once again shown that their power to mobilise can lead to mob rule. Most of us feel for Alfie and his family, but does that give us licence to launch unfounded and ill-advised attacks on people who are trying to do their jobs the best they can? No. Obviously not. I sense that, behind the compassion and desire to show solidarity, some of Alfie Evans’ supporters may have channelled a lot of their own unrelated anger and frustrations into a cause that had nothing to do with them.

There have been amazing advances in medical treatments and many conditions that were once terminal can now be cured. But again, the way this is reported in the media is not always helpful. Every so often you read stories along the lines of ‘doctors saved my life against all odds’. This may give people unfounded hope for a cure in conditions that, in the current state of medical science, are still terminal.

Add to this a culture where families feel increasingly empowered to express what treatment they want for their loved one (which arguably is a good thing but also has limitations), and a lack of knowledge about the legislation protecting the best interests of patients who do not have the capacity to make decisions about their own care, and you have a perfect social media storm brewing.

”Perhaps independent mediation would help?”

I don’t have answers to many of the questions raised by Alfie’s case, which are partly to do with how we relate to each other in society. I don’t know how that can be improved but I know that nurses and all other staff members at Alder Hey did not deserve the “barrage of highly abusive and threatening language and behaviour” that they received. While the loss of a child is unthinkable we must not cause pain for those trying to care for people when they need it most.

The healthcare system needs to find a way of making cases like Alfie’s, where parents cannot agree with the professionals caring for their child, less adversarial.

Perhaps independent mediation would help? The moment the legal system becomes involved, positions are entrenched on both sides. Mediation may offer a way of resolving these conflicts in a less distressing manner.

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