TikTok: A tool for physicians, or a risk to professionalism?

Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz | March 07, 2022

The late 1990s ushered in the era of social media, which would later go on to transform healthcare communication and education. Patients who once passively absorbed health information now actively seek it out, often on discussion forums of common social media platforms.

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Among those platforms is TikTok, an app where content creators make short-form videos on any number of different subjects. According to an article published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, healthcare is no exception: Many doctors have taken to TikTok to fight medical misinformation and build trust with patients. To demonstrate utmost professionalism in their content, physicians can apply and enforce online boundaries.

How doctors are using TikTok

Physicians have a designated corner of the TikTok app dedicated to providing a broad scope of healthcare content and tips. One study published by the Journal of Medical Internet Research looked at the quality of information circulating around TikTok regarding diabetes.

From a sample of 199 diabetes-related videos, researchers identified each source and analyzed the nature of the content. Of the individual users they identified, close to 70% self-identified as HCPs. The TikToks made by HCPs generally earned high reliability scores.

Another study, also published by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, similarly supports HCPs’ use of social media for healthcare purposes. 

This study mentions that doctors and other HCPs who educate users on social media have increased patients’ understanding of health information, as well as patients’ participation in their own healthcare. Social media expands access to health information—especially when HCPs’ content actively engages their audience.

Physicians on TikTok are also committed to addressing and debunking medical misinformation. One New York Times piece references gastroenterologist and chief medical social media officer at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia, Austin Chiang, MD, MPH, who feels that doctors must echo the importance of evidence-based medicine on TikTok. You can see an example of his content here, which addresses the misuse of essential oils in curing diseases.

Risks to professionalism

Just as there are doctors who educate users and dispel medical myths on TikTok, there are also physicians whose use of the platform may hurt their careers more than help.

According to the New York Times article, some doctors are guilty of mocking or bashing their patients on TikTok. Other doctors are known to exercise “whitecoat marketing,” which entails the use of their prestige as medical professionals to promote unauthorized or inappropriate products on TikTok.

Doctors who use the platform with the intent to educate and communicate accurate, relevant health information encourage those doctors who use TikTok inappropriately to follow their lead. TikTok’s community guidelines, which prohibit harmful misinformation, also support doctors in their quest to professionally serve the app’s users.

Pitfalls to avoid on social media

Doctors do have the agency to mitigate professional risks they face when creating content for apps like TikTok. To minimize common social media missteps, an article published by Family Practice Management offers a few tips for doctors online:

  • Don’t blur the lines. While maintaining an internet presence may challenge some doctors’ professional boundaries, sticking by them is a must. Remember your goal: Provide quality information in a personable way, and treat individuals online like you would in the office. “Do no harm” is an important ethical code to stand by.

  • Focus on general health information. Refrain from offering medical advice tailored to individuals. Instead, keep your content general—and let your users know this up front. Not only is it difficult to verify the identities of online personas, but privacy concerns come to the fore when sensitive information circulates on apps. Keeping your content universal can protect you and your followers.

  • Protect the privacy of patients. The privacy of your patients comes before your social media presence. Before posting an anecdote from your practice, consider whether it’s your information to share. Ask yourself if your patients—or their families—might see it, and if they could be harmed by it. Avoid the HIPAA violation by fictionalizing the anecdote, or getting formal consent from your patient to share.

  • Fight misinformation. According to Family Practice Management, “Physicians on social media have a professional responsibility to ensure the accuracy of the health-related content they create or share. Health professionals can be as vulnerable to misinformation as laypersons, particularly when they share information initially posted by someone else.” In other words: If you can’t verify what you’re sharing, it’s probably best not to.

  • Be wary of conflicts of interest. For online influencers, sponsored content funded by third parties makes up a decent portion of revenue. Doctors, however, must be careful not to step into a conflict of interest by sponsoring their content. For example, an ad agency could see that your TikToks explore the importance of prenatal vitamins, and then request your public support of a specific pharmaceutical brand in your content. The money may be nice, but medical ethics are called into question—best to steer clear.

Sources

  1. Farsi D. Social media and health care, Part I: Literature review of social media use by healthcare providers. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2021;23(4):e23205.

  2. Goldberg E. Doctors on TikTok Try to Go Viral. The New York Times. January 31, 2020.

  3. Kong W, Song S, Zhao YC, et al. TikTok as a health information source: assessment of the quality of information in diabetes-related videos. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2021;23(9):e30409

  4. Nguyen BM, Lu E, Bhuyan N, et al. Social media for doctors: taking professional and patient engagement to the next level. Family Practice Management. 2020;27(1):19-24.

  5. Zhu C, Xu X, Zhang W, et al. How health communication via Tik Tok makes a difference: a content analysis of Tik Tok accounts run by Chinese provincial health committees. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020;17(1):192.

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