TikTok docs use app to provide reliable medical information
In August 2020, social media giant TikTok reported more than 100 million monthly active users from the United States on its platform.
While the app is known for short, catchy dance videos and challenges — some of which have led to FDA warnings — it also serves as an opportunity to provide medical information to users.
“The time for any physician to discount social media platforms is over,” Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP, FASCO, professor of medicine at Brown University, told Healio Primary Care.
“I don’t think we should ignore it, and I don’t think we should pretend that it doesn’t make a difference, because it is,” Dizon said. “It’s making a huge difference.”
Healio Primary Care spoke with Dizon and Austin Chiang, MD, MPH, director of bariatric endoscopy at Jefferson Health and founder and president of the Association for Healthcare Social Media, to learn more about TikTok and the importance of having medical professionals using the platform.
Doctors on TikTok
Dizon said he joined the platform about a year ago out of “curiosity” after seeing clips from the app on Twitter and the news.
When he first started creating content, he would post videos of himself performing dances that were trending on TikTok with medical information within the video.
Although he enjoyed learning the dances, he said, these posts were designed primarily to expose viewers to medical information.
“Now, I don’t find myself wanting to learn those dances anymore — it was sort of this passing infatuation with it — and now I’m just using it, actually, to really have conversations [with users].”
Chiang, similarly, was exposed to TikTok through other social media platforms and transitioned to the platform after using Twitter and Instagram.
When he first joined, Chiang said there were few doctors creating content on the platform.
“I dipped my toes in the water and saw that people were interested in what I had to say about health in an entertaining way, and I took it back to all of my Instagram doctor friends who are in various specialties, and that’s really how it all got rolled out,” he said.
Initially, there were some issues with clinicians on TikTok who were posting videos in which they mocked patients or were otherwise unprofessional.
Since then, Chiang said, doctors have learned to make content humorous without being unprofessional.
“I think many of us have struck a good balance of entertainment without compromising the integrity of our position as health professionals,” he said.
The Association for Healthcare Social Media, a nonprofit professional society, is working to help health care workers understand the “pitfalls” of social media usage.
Chiang stressed, however, that concerns about being unprofessional should not deter doctors from joining social media platforms, but should instead inform them of what to avoid.
“If we can anticipate the potential risks of being on social media, it helps you create content without the concern that you’re doing something unprofessional,” he said.
Dizon said he uses the platform to raise cancer awareness among the general public since many people do not “really pay attention to what’s going on in the specialty of oncology until or unless someone close to them, or they themselves, have been diagnosed with cancer.”
Many people, he added, do not think about how to reduce their risk for cancer or maintain a healthy lifestyle that can lower cancer risks.
Additionally, Dizon said that his content provides information on the medical system and how it relates to oncology.
“There’s some really great lessons to be learned for life in general — and certainly for people living with other conditions beyond oncology — but I just wanted to bring more of an awareness of it, and that’s prompted what I do [on TikTok],” he said.
Aside from addressing medical topics, Dizon said he is also passionate about using TikTok as an opportunity to break the “doctor as deity” image and show users the “more human side of medicine.”
Chiang said he focuses on gut health, including conditions that he treats as an advanced endoscopist and weight loss, since another area of his practice is bariatric endoscopy.
He also has discussed COVID-19 in many of his posts over the last year, and previously included his experiences with medical education and training in his content.
“I try to make things entertaining and fun and I think that people generally enjoy that,” Chiang said.
He sometimes includes short sketches or medical information in trending TikTok dances.
“I always put a medical spin on it, so if people really enjoyed watching that type of video, they can expect a more medical angle from my end,” he said.
TikTok can also be used to address misinformation about medical topics, according to Dizon. He previously created a post after he noticed people were considering alkalinizing their bodies with diet.
“Anyone who’s ever studied physiology — and certainly I had to in medical school — understands that you cannot alkalinize your body, that we have safe systems that [the] body builds in to maintain a normal pH,” he said.
Chiang also said that he uses TikTok to address medical misinformation.
“Like any other social media platform, there is a lot of misinformation [on TikTok], and people who are talking about medical topics don’t have any actual medical training,” he said.
For instance, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Chiang said many users posted content that may not have been misinformation, but still a misinterpretation of available data.
Therefore, it is important for medical professionals to put data in context for the average TikTok user, Chiang said.
“If we’re not on these social media platforms as health professionals, then the conversation would be dominated by people who don’t have the appropriate training,” he said.
Medical advice vs. education
Both Dizon and Chiang said there is a need to differentiate general recommendations from medical advice.
Dizon stressed that medical professionals on TikTok should not provide individualized advice, as they do not have patient relationships with anonymous users and because they do not have users’ full medical records.
Instead, Dizon said that he focuses on providing people with information that applies to the general public.
“I’ve always made a clear distinction between what is individualized medical advice and what’s medical education. In general, individualized medical advice is not permitted on any social media platform,” Chiang said. “But there are certain ways to educate the public about various health topics, and that’s how I would always frame it, from the light of education.”
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he noted, there were concerns that the general public downplayed the weight of the situation, so it was important for physicians to provide information and clarification on the pandemic.
“To do that in an engaging way on TikTok, I think, can reach a whole different audience,” Chiang said. “Now, there are TikTok users that span the entire age range, but initially it was mainly a younger audience, and those people may not be watching the regular news outlets as others do. So, to be able to get that information out there and answer those questions is really helpful.”
He added that TikTok displays content based on popularity — not just based on accounts that users follow — so these types of posts can reach a wider audience than they might on other social media platforms.
“TikTok is kind of just a free-for-all, and so as long as it’s engaging enough and people are interacting with that piece of content, then it has a chance of going viral and reaching even millions at a time,” Chiang said. “I’ve had multiple videos get well over 1, 2, 3 million views on TikTok.”
Chiang said that physicians can recommend TikTok to their teenage patients as a source for medical information, as long as they follow health care professionals with verified accounts.
“I think that there are plenty of health professionals now on TikTok who are talking about various different areas of expertise. It’d be great for them to follow, to learn in general. Not to take as medical advice, though, because everyone has a very specific situation that they’re dealing with if they have a specific medical condition,” he added.
TikTok. Why we are suing the Administration. https://newsroom.tiktok.com/en-us/tiktok-files-lawsuit. Accessed January 26, 2021.