Public panic and confusion over COVID-19 has accelerated a trend that has been growing for years: health care practitioners giving advice on social media. A few have seen breakout stardom through sheer entertainment, not medicine, like Jason Campbell, M.D., a resident physician in Portland, Oregon, who makes dancing TikTok videos—sometimes recruiting colleagues to dance—when taking a break from treating patients. Dancing appears to be a good way to get attention: Nurses at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia rose to fast Instagram fame by choreographing a dance to the Ciara song “Level Up” while dressed in full PPE gear.
Others, like Leo Moore, M.D., an internal medicine physician who works in public health in Los Angeles, have taken to social media just to lay out the facts. Moore, known as “The Practical M.D.,” doesn’t dance, and he’s not interested in being a star. He was inspired by some Facebook live chats in early March where he answered questions about COVID-19.
“There was a lot of misinformation [around COVID-19],” Moore tells TheBody. “Friends were fearful about not getting sound information.” Moore’s anecdotes are backed up by a recent Pew Research Center study showing nearly two-thirds of Americans say they’ve seen information about the disease that seemed completely made up.
Moore, whose slogan is “all facts, no fluff,” wanted to go beyond COVID-19, to provide a platform about general health. His first YouTube topic outside COVID-19 is about preventing strokes, but even that was ignited by the pandemic.
“People are putting off getting essential care out of fear of getting COVID-19. My approach is just clear info about facts, straight to the point. If you go to the doctor and know nothing, then it’s hard to ask pertinent questions. I see my videos as a primer.”
Because he’s not providing medical infotainment, he’s growing his audience slowly. “I don’t want anyone to think this is more of a waste of their time. I’ve seen a lot of videos from so-called TV doctor experts, but I don’t want to be known as that. And I’m not selling anything.”
Good Entertainment, Bad Medicine
The trend of getting health information from social media is a wave showing no signs of retreating. A recent survey found that nearly one-third of Americans have taken a health-related action, such as taking a dietary supplement, based on information they found on social media. But there is a lot of noise in social media—and some of it is coming from doctors, with promoters selling dubious miracle “cures.” Some of the biggest stars have used TikTok to mock their patients.
There’s also misinformation, and no real clearinghouse for sorting the good advice from the bad. Researchers looking specifically at YouTube videos made to educate people about prostate cancer found that more than 75% were found to be misleading in some significant way. YouTube, at least for COVID-19, has promised to pull videos giving bad advice. However, nobody has been able to stop the president of the United States from repeatedly spreading untruths about unproven treatments for COVID-19, advice which may have led to at least one death.
The American Medical Association supports the use of social media for disseminating health information, though it offers no guidelines for doing so. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does have professional guidelines for social media use, but that doesn’t mean medical professionals–turned influencers follow them.
Doctors who use social media, even with the best of intentions, face a variety of risks that are increased by the importance of their jobs. Some have had their expertise questioned by peers. Other doctors, according to Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., a professor of bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center, cross the line to unethical behavior by selling products where they have an ownership interest, he says.
“They at least need to be transparent about [that interest] when they’re promoting products,” Caplan says. “It’s also important not to misuse professional credentials to endorse things that aren’t relevant to medicine. If you’re endorsing an ice cream, say that you’re endorsing as an ice-cream lover, not as a doctor.”
Caplan, who sees no problem, generally, in use of flash or humor, warns doctors to not get into flame wars on social media. “All of the good and bad of medical professionals on social media is being exacerbated now. Doctors have more time on their hands, unless they’re on the front line, and there are also more eyeballs because many people are not working.”
Building Trust, and Brand
Doctors using social media is not a new trend. In fact, it’s been happening long enough for doctor-influencers to develop niches. Some are using their expertise in a specific topic, such as gynecology or sports medicine. Others use a platform to share information from their personal lives. Some doctors are even giving advice to their peers on building their brand.
Social media influencers can make inroads with specific audiences, building trust with people who might not feel like they’ve been heard by their doctors, or might have some mistrust of health institutions. David Malebranche, M.D., M.P.H., co-host of the Counter Narrative Project’s Revolutionary Health program, says the health education platform was created to combat the lack of information for Black gay men.
“It seemed that most of the media health information surrounding Black gay men consisted of pathological stories about how we were all at risk for HIV,” says Malebranche. “As a physician and public health official, I felt we deserved better and we deserved a format by which we could tell our own narratives and provide education about health, instead of waiting on others to do it for us and just react to it.”
Malebranche approached executive director Charles Stephens and the Counter Narrative Project initially with the idea to do video shorts on medical topics. Stephens came up with the idea to do it on Facebook Live, and from there it evolved into prerecorded content for YouTube. Weekly broadcasts range from a young man describing his experience with getting a COVID-19 test, to intimate partner violence, to correcting misinformation about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), to a conversation on childhood sexual trauma with Pose star Billy Porter.
The platform is an opportunity to correct misinformation and build trust with their audience, according to Stephens. “What also sets us apart is our lens. We bring a perspective on health rooted in justice and equity. Our approach is to not blame individuals for the health challenges our communities experience, but institutions and systems,” Stephens says. “We want our audience to feel at home while consuming the content we produce. We want them to feel like we are their brothers, and we are here for them.”
In the era of COVID-19, building trust in providing health information becomes even more critical, Stephens adds. “Because the information is changing so rapidly, we feel compelled to also make sure we share what we are learning and create a form to have dialogue. Revolutionary Health is unique in that we don’t just talk about the health aspects of COVID-19, but also how our community is surviving and thriving.”