The Plague of Health Professionals on TikTok

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In our digital, technologically advanced world, it can be hard to keep up with trends that seem to constantly evolve. For instance, Facebook and Twitter were once the top dogs in the realm of social media. Ask a young person today what their social media app of choice is, however, and you’re more likely to hear them name drop Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok, the new, cool kid on the block. 

The rise of TikTok seemed to happen virtually overnight — The Beijing-based media company ByteDance purchased Musical.ly, a lip-synching video app, in 2018 and rebranded it as TikTok. As of October 2019, TikTok boasted half a billion monthly users across the globe, and nearly 80 million Americans have downloaded the app. TikTok users range from influencers looking to snag followers, to lip-synching teens and beyond.

Interestingly, healthcare professionals are finding their voices on TikTok en masse. In an attempt to curb the spread of healthcare misinformation, doctors, nurses, and psychiatrists alike are taking posting to TikTok in increasing numbers. And they’re covering every medical subject imaginable: from mental health to brain injuries, eating disorders, and even contraception and sex ed. But the video-sharing efforts of healthcare professionals are rife with challenges, such as finding a voice that appeals to younger demographics and fighting against a general and pervasive distrust of the healthcare industry as a whole. 

The Inherent Benefits and Limits of TikTok

No matter a video’s subject, those posting on TikTok must be succinct as well as engaging, if they have any hope at all of developing a following. The app offers two video options, either 15 or 60 seconds. That’s not a lot of time to cover even the basics of many complex medical conditions, and it’s arguably TikTok’s most limiting feature.

Yet short-form videos provide an almost perfect medium for reaching out to the world’s youngest generations, who may have shorter attention spans than previous generations. While attention span research is a mixed bag, the popularity of short-form video as Gen Z’s media of choice can’t be denied. Marketing professionals have even gone as far as referring to Gen Z, 98% of whom own a smartphone, as “millennials on steroids.” These young people are constantly connected and typically switch between their favorite platforms and content at lightning speeds. 

Understanding the viewing and social media habits of Gen Z is especially relevant when discussing TikTok, as more than 40% of its users fall in the 16 to 24 age range. In light of those numbers, it’s easy to see how TikTok can be a valuable tool for helping to combat medical misinformation. By targeting the nation’s youngest generations, healthcare professionals may even begin to see improvements in overall public health, as true information begins to supplant widespread misconceptions. 

Regarding Security and Patient Confidentiality

But gaining the trust of the general public isn’t as easy as simply posting fun videos on social media platforms. Healthcare professionals are, in effect, fighting an uphill battle. CNN reports that “the public’s trust in physicians has continuously waned” over the last several years. However, nurses are viewed in a much more positive light than physicians, with nursing topping the list of the nation’s most honest and ethical professions. 

Providing quality patient care is, of course, a cornerstone of the healthcare industry, but ethical considerations are just as important. So how does TikTok fit into the equation? Patient privacy is an important factor in the realm of healthcare ethics, and healthcare professionals posting on TikTok may not be able to guarantee similar privacy and discretion among those who view their posts. 

In fact, TikTok has been plagued with cybersecurity concerns almost since its inception. Further, the platform is regrettably hush-hush about the types of personal data it gathers and stores. Users should note that the app at least accesses one’s GPS location as well as device information, including other apps that are running and the user’s full contact list. This comprehensive data collection isn’t exactly conducive to the mission of doctor/patient privacy.  

Questionable data collection is just the beginning when it comes to ethical healthcare-related concerns on TikTok, however. For example, Danyelle Rose, a nurse, and avid TikTok user, came under fire in November 2019 for posting insensitive videos. Via TikTok, Rose directly shamed many of her patients, accusing them of being drug users who were faking symptoms. 

While Rose’s behavior is problematic on its own, she also seems to have violated the good Samaritan law. In the majority of U.S. states, healthcare professionals are legally obligated to treat those seeking medical assistance for overdose or another type of drug-related medical emergency. Videos that serve to shame drug users seeking treatment are inherently harmful and could discourage others to seek help.

Does Healthcare Belong on TikTok?

Drug users seeking help want to be treated with dignity and compassion, as do most patients, no matter their underlying medical condition. A notable criticism of digitized healthcare is its lack of real human interaction. While many healthcare professionals on TikTok are working hard to convey an image of trustworthiness and approachability, the harsh reality is that video-based healthcare is impersonal.

Generally speaking, soft skills are just as important within the healthcare industry as medical knowledge and positive treatment results. In fact, quality healthcare and patient safety hinge on the ability of health professionals to effectively communicate and display enthusiasm for their work. While enthusiasm is easy to fake long enough to make a 15-to-60 second video, communication is a two-way street that TikTok and other video sharing platforms can’t adequately provide. 
Despite a lack of human interaction and the prevalence of insensitive and unethical providers on the platform, TikTok still has its place in the world of healthcare. Short-form videos may prove to be invaluable when it comes to preventative healthcare, for instance, especially among those who are underinsured or lack insurance altogether. And TikTok videos may indeed help to reduce the spread of misinformation while also bringing more overall trust to the healthcare industry in general. Users should work to vet those videos that are incorrect or ethically questionable, while also boosting the popularity of messages containing valuable health information and tips.

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