The rise of health ed TikToks

Charli D’Amelio, Rosa, Kombucha Girl and now doctors! Read about how doctors are joining TikTok to nip medical misinformation in the bud.

Thanks to TikTok and life under quarantine, you’ve probably already made whipped coffee and learned the popular dance routine to Megan Thee Stallion’s song, “Savage.” You may have even gotten all dressed up and lip synced with your mom to “Angel Eyes” to complete TikTok’s latest trend.

But TikTok is growing to include more than just DIYers, dancers and comedians. An increasing number of doctors, and other healthcare providers, are joining TikTok to educate the young demographic already on the app. These educational videos made by medical professionals are what I call, ‘health ed TikToks.’

Interestingly enough, young users are invested in taking charge of their own health, as evident by the high level of engagement on these viral TikToks. In fact, two of the most popular health topics on TikTok appear to be female reproductive health, which falls under obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN), and acne treatment, which falls under dermatology. Now, you can learn how to make better-informed decisions regarding your own health while browsing TikTok from the comfort of your own bed.

What does this look like?

As you scroll through your For You page, you may come across at least one or two doctors. Usually dressed on camera in a white coat or scrubs, these doctors are either participating in one of TikTok’s popular dance trends, lip syncing to a trending sound or talking to viewers directly. Hand gestures and finger points to colorful captions that pop up on screen also seem to be staple ingredients for health ed TikToks.

But, like other TikTok users, what doctors prefer to do in their videos depend on their own personalities, levels of comfort and how they think that the information can best be presented. Dr. Staci Tanouye, M.D. or @dr.staci.t, for instance, is a gynecologist in Florida who often delivers facts about female reproductive health while doing popular TikTok dance routines. In a recent video, Dr. Tanouye breaks down what Plan B is, how to use it, its effectiveness and how it works, all while dancing to a Pokémon remix song playing in the background.

Other doctors don’t use the app’s dance trends much or at all to deliver information. Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, M.D. or @drjenniferlincoln, for example, is an OB-GYN in Oregon who prefers talking directly to her viewers or gesturing to captions while music plays. She usually sits in front of a green-screen background that reflects the video’s topic of discussion, such as a picture of condoms or a birth control patch.

So why does this movement of doctors onto TikTok matter?

For one, health ed TikToks are helping to educate young users on important health issues. Users mainly consist of high school and college students and, since November, the app has surpassed 1.5 billion downloads in total. In other words, TikTok is a gold mine for reaching a young demographic and spreading important medical information that may not have otherwise reached them. Just look at the overwhelming popularity of these videos and consider how doctors only started creating health ed TikToks this past fall.

“We’re meeting [teenagers and young adults] where they’re at. I’m not asking them to read 20 pages of a paper or a book,” Dr. Lincoln shared when asked about why TikTok has been such a successful platform for educating young people. “It’s slipped in with the fun stuff that they’re already looking at and you can get a lot of information across in a short amount of time.”

Many doctors on TikTok have recently taken advantage of how social media can be a great equalizer for health education. They have pivoted the focus of their videos to share general medical advice or updates related to COVID-19. Dr. Austin Chiang, M.D. MPH or @austinchiangmd, for instance, is a gastroenterologist and advanced endoscopist in Pennsylvania who describes himself in his TikTok bio as a “doctor, professor” and “medical mythbuster.”

He sheds light on misinformation about social distancing and evolving COVID-19 hospitalization statistics. One of his recent videos informed viewers about ongoing COVID-19 vaccine trials. Dr. Chiang’s lighthearted, humorous tone and educational intent have helped young users like me to stay informed without spiraling and catastrophizing or falling prey to false information spread by fear.


MY 😁 SAYS THERE’S HOPE. dc @africanhoney

♬ original sound - samantha_long_

Most of the time, however, I have observed that TikTok users seem to flock to sex education-related TikToks and, more specifically, videos about female hygiene. This fact makes sense considering how sex education in U.S. schools can drastically vary from state to state, and even within the same state itself. For instance, only 39 states and D.C. mandate sex and/or HIV education, and only 17 states require curriculum to be medically accurate. The extent to which contraception is discussed, if at all, also varies widely across the nation. Within California itself, areas such as Orange County have resisted implementing the comprehensive sex education as enacted by the state. And this does not yet even touch upon the societal shame instilled behind any discussions of sex or female reproductive health.

“Anything that has to do with [female hygiene] or [busting] birth control myths, [so] basically all the stuff that should be covered in high school that just isn’t, [goes viral]. There’s so much misinformation out there,” Dr. Lincoln commented. “Kids are hungry for [health education] because they want to make good choices. We’re not giving them the power to do that when we’re not teaching them about their bodies.”

When young adults cannot find the resources or support that they need for their health inquiries at school or at home, it is completely understandable that they would turn to the internet, likely social media, for guidance. However, healthcare providers like Dr. Chiang saw non-licensed individuals posing as health experts online and spreading harmful lies about health. That is when Dr. Chiang and other health professionals decided to take to Instagram, Twitter and eventually TikTok to combat this problem. This involved forming the #verifyhealthcare campaign, which encouraged followers to look up the credentials of online figures giving out health advice.

“A lot of us [health professionals]...had already connected because we were so passionate about health misinformation and the fact that we’re on social media for a reason,” Dr. Chiang reflected. “We felt really strongly about trying to suppress this [inaccurate] information from getting to people. Our solution was to build our own platform so that people can recognize us as more of the spokespeople for valid information.”

What’s more is that TikTok is not only facilitating education and disproving false information, but it is also promoting an environment for open discussion. For instance, Dr. Lincoln often posts videos reviewing the safety and efficacy of different feminine hygiene products such as Summer’s Eve. The comments section is inundated with replies such as, “I’m not a girl but I stayed to learn,” and “You’re helping so many young girls who don’t know how to ask these questions.” Queries about feminine hygiene and requests for future videos also fill the comments section.

Perhaps it is the relative anonymity of an internet persona, the refreshing candor of doctors like Dr. Lincoln or all of the above that encourage this community to thrive. Whatever the reason, discussion has helped normalize health topics like sex that are too important not to talk about.

How have health ed TikToks affected the doctors who create them?

Unlike other TikTokers, however, medical professionals have ties to hospitals and other healthcare institutions. As popular as they may be on TikTok, these doctors still hold responsibility for their patients’ lives. As a result, there are rules to follow, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) that legally requires healthcare workers to protect the privacy of patient information.

But the rest of the national social media guidelines for doctors are fairly general, such as the emphasis on professionalism, and have not yet evolved to specifically address TikTok. There aren’t any rules for what dances are appropriate to perform, for instance, or how to disclose potential conflicts of interest on social media when it comes to medical advice.

In addition, different hospitals and medical institutions may have different rules. Filming in the workplace may be banned because of the potential impact of public misconception. In fact, some doctors are not allowed to film dances at all so as to uphold their professional image. Patients may think that doctors are neglecting their main role as healthcare providers during work and thus contributing to long wait times.

In reality, doctors clarify that they are filming TikToks in their own free time simply because they are passionate about public health education. Filming TikToks during work is also a violation of hospital rules anyway. And, most doctors are not compensated for their medical roles on social media, though they may notify the Public Relations department of their respective medical institutions.

Even amongst doctors themselves, there is sometimes disagreement on social media etiquette.

“There have been colleagues who have said, ‘Why are you dancing and talking about deaths from the coronavirus?’...I was celebrating the fact that there was going to be a reduction in projected deaths,” Dr. Chiang recalled, referring to his TikToks that update viewers on COVID-19 news. “I’m not celebrating death...I’m saying that this is a positive result of all the efforts that everyone has put in. I could see how some people could still have a problem with that so that definitely made me think twice, moving forward, about what sort of messaging I should pair with dancing.”

This leaves a lot of gray areas for doctors on TikTok to navigate themselves. Many doctors like Dr. Lincoln turn down sponsorships in order to provide health education without conflicts of interest. Dr. Chiang himself scrutinizes the lyrics and overall message of his song choices before creating TikToks. One of his captions even explains his decision not to make gun hand gestures for a dance to avoid sending the wrong public health message.

What does this mean for the future?

Without a specific set of guidelines for social media use related to healthcare, Dr. Chiang and other doctors founded the Association for Healthcare Social Media (AHSM) about a year ago. It is a quickly growing nonprofit run by doctors dedicated to developing best practices for social media use in healthcare.

This is especially necessary as social media continues to rapidly evolve and as telehealth becomes increasingly relevant to treat COVID-19 patients. Only time will tell how TikTok and AHSM will evolve to impact the field of medicine.

“I would love it if my TikTok became completely irrelevant and everybody stopped watching my videos,” Dr. Lincoln said, which initially surprised me until she continued to explain why. “And the reason is [if,] because in school, [young adults] were actually taught all of this stuff [about sex education]. I would love to not be needed [for that reason].”

So how can we measure the progress of these health ed TikToks? How do we know that all of these likes, comments and shares mean that these videos are actually making an impact on public health education?

Simply put: we don’t know. There’s no clear answer but, as Dr. Chiang reflected, “If there’s one person who can change their behavior or get information that they couldn’t previously get before from this TikTok, that should be a success.”