Health experts are utilising the app to educate young people on everything from safe sex to coronavirus
Where previous generations might have Googled medical symptoms, Gen Z appears to want their medical information to background music. Millions of young people use the video-sharing app to learn about their health, with board-certified doctors creating fun and informative content tailored for them (in 60 seconds or less). These are the #DoctorsOfTikTok or #TikTokDocs, two hashtags that have thousands of videos and over 24 million views total on the app. The videos range from comedic routines on the life of a doctor, to facts about the human anatomy, to medical advice and lessons on safe sex. Some are created by medical students, but many are board-certified physicians in areas like plastic surgery and gynaecology.
Like many TikTok videos, the one thing many of the popular posts have in common is the use of music and dancing. In one video by psychiatrist Melissa Shepard, common stigmas around people who self-harm are addressed to the viral TikTok song “Choices” by E-40. In another, OB-GYN, Dr Staci Tanouye lists what a healthy period should look like to “...Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears.
Many of these doctors have become TikTok famous in their own right, with hundreds of thousands of followers and millions of views. Dr Rose Marie Leslie, a Family Medicine Resident Physician, is one of those. Creating “daily doctor fact” videos, Dr Leslie’s videos range from covering the HPV vaccine to information about the lining of our stomach. With a background in health education, working specifically with teens, Dr Leslie started using the app because of its potential to educate on a broad scale. “I focus my content on topics I cover daily in the clinic, from coronavirus to contraception and I use my videos to combat medical disinformation with facts from medical literature,” she says. “I use the app as a tool for health advocacy, addressing important topics like health equity, transgender healthcare, and the impact of global warming on health.”
The response to these videos, she says, has been overall positive. She says many people reach out to say that a video has inspired them to do something positive for their health, like quit vaping. She believes that, because the majority of young people consume news on social media, it’s a space with amazing potential for public health work. But that comes with the risk of disinformation and conspiracy theories. “It’s very important that physicians exist on social media to be a source for the public to find evidence-based health information,” she says.
“I use the app as a tool for health advocacy, addressing important topics like health equity, transgender healthcare, and the impact of global warming on health. It’s very important that physicians exist on social media to be a source for the public to find evidence-based health information” – Dr Rose Marie Leslie
Although medical professionals have long used social media to either promote themselves or provide information to the masses, TikTok’s emphasis on humorous and musical content makes it a new area to navigate. Finding the balance between educational but funny and misleading can be difficult, and there are no rules or regulations about who poses as a professional. Doctors like Dr Leslie are creating content to target this, posting videos to remind medical professionals of a general code of conduct expected when being on the app. “Some medical professional TikTok’ers are doing inappropriate things, like making fun of patients or giving out facts that aren’t evidence-based,” she says. In a recent video, she urges them to use their expertise to create appropriate content that is based in medical science and to never shame patients or share patient stories. She also hopes that other doctors will step in and call out anything they come across that is unprofessional by sending that person a direct message.
Dr Fatu Forna, an OB/GYN based in Atlanta, Georgia, thinks one of TikTok’s biggest potential in the medical field is to show “a more approachable side” of doctors that will help them to connect better with their patients, and ultimately provide better care. The mother of four was first introduced to the app by her teenage daughter, and has since used the platform to educate girls about their bodies, sex, contraception, and STDs.
“More doctors around the world should utilise social media. Our ultimate goal as doctors is to improve health, and we need to adapt and reach people where they want to be reached,” Forna says. “It’s a win-win situation when we can impact lives by sharing health messages while also having fun.” Yet not everyone shares the same sentiment. Many doctors on the app address the concerns they’ve been receiving from people who view dancing or joking as unprofessional for doctors to take part in.
This hasn’t stopped the craze from reaching a global scale. Dr Zeina Moukarzel believes she is the first doctor in Lebanon to create this type of content on the app. “In Lebanon and the Middle-East, the general mindset is that medical doctors should be serious to be professionals,” she explains. “Because of that, the response is still low, and I have been criticized by some of my colleagues.” In fact, at a recent workshop she attended addressing social media for healthcare in Dubai, organised by Mayo Clinic, the MBRU (Mohammed Bin Rashid University) and the American University of Dubai, she was surprised to find that TikTok wasn’t mentioned at all.
Because it is still relatively uncharted waters, the doctors on TikTok today are each figuring out best social media practises as they go. For Dr Moukarzel collaboration is central to this. “There platforms are not the place to sell your services,” she says. “Instead, use them to raise awareness and educate your community.” And it seems the users agree, as more popular topics on the app are ones that a teenager may find difficult to discuss with parents or friends: like sexual health. Board-certified OB-GYN, Dr Staci Tanouye comment sections are full with teenagers asking for new content about sexual health. “Can you do facts about the IUD?” one user asks on a video about the Herpes virus. “What if you don’t want it showing up on your family insurance?” asks another on her video about safe sex facts.
“We need to go where our audience is, and our audience is all over social media searching for health information. We must be there to be a reliable source for them” – Dr Staci Tanouye
With the arrival of social media transforming the way we shop, connect, and keep up with news, it comes as very little surprise to find the medical community adapting to fit the needs of the younger generation. Unlike many influencers, however, there’s little potential for ethical forms of sponsorship and therefore no financial benefit to the doctors partaking (aside from brand awareness). For those interested in public education, this isn’t a deterrent. Dr Tanouye, views it as her duty to provide accurate medical information on the platform and dispel misinformation about sexual health. When creating her content, which has gained over 200 thousand followers, she aims to: empower women to learn about and love their bodies and to demonstrate her journey through medicine, life as a female physician, and encourage young people to pursue careers in medicine.
If at the worst of times medical information on TikTok is disrespectful, at the best of times it provides an opportunity for free education about medically important issues in a time where healthcare costs continue to rise. “Social media has a strong community of physicians who all share the goal of educating the public. I strongly believe that this needs to continue and expand,” says Dr Tanouye. “We need to go where our audience is, and our audience is all over social media searching for health information. We must be there to be a reliable source for them.” This, it seems, makes it worth figuring out how to navigate the space in a fun and ethical way. For “#TikTokDocs” this will no doubt continue to be done to the beat of the latest viral song.