Misinformation thrives on social media platforms. Many users of TikTok are taking medical advice from influencers and faux doctors. Due to greater trust in health influencers, 20% of Americans are turning to TikTok for advice on a health issue before turning to their doctors. Why? It comes down to three things: accessibility, affordability, and approachability. 

This is particularly problematic because millions of teens and young adults are being fed content on TikTok that paints a very unrealistic and inaccurate picture of food, nutrition, and health. Meanwhile, HCPs use social media for both personal and professional reasons, but they are not weighing in on TikTok to contradict the problematic discussions on health and diet culture. 

Why do people go to TikTok? 

Health information is one of the primary topics that people search online. Information from social media can be easier to understand and provides immediate advice. Especially when compared to public health information or pamphlets given at the doctor’s office. But it is important to understand that the information on social media may not be accurate. 

Young adults tend to turn to the internet to understand health information in a digestible manner. This highlights the link between public health literacy and social media. This has caused more doctors to join TikTok to take advantage of how social media can be a great equalizer for health education. In addition, these doctors are pivoting the focus of their videos to share general medical advice or current health topics.

According to data from the Mindset Engine, our proprietary intelligence platform, only 6% of HCPs in the last two weeks have used TikTok for personal or professional information, which suggests that they are less likely to utilize this particular social platform to correct other creators’ health misinformation. While yes, doctors are starting to enter the conversation on social media, not enough are joining or frequently using the app. 

Why are influencer voices more trusted on TikTok? 

Doctors and influencers have different goals. On one hand, doctors want to provide context or nuance with information, while influencers want to sell a program/product in a simple manner. Due to this distinction, social media users tend to relate more to the influencer and become seduced by too-good-to-be-true advice. When the advice is coming from a 'normal person', consumers tend to see the information as more attainable and relatable.  

Influencers who are not medical doctors or registered dietitians are the main distributors of health information on TikTok. According to a 2022 study, expert voices that could dispel harmful information around health are not present on social media. Even though TikTok has attempted to restrict content around disordered eating, this approach is not working. It has created a tricky ethical and professional line for doctors and has led to other doctors’ hesitations to join TikTok.  

Healthcare communicators need to step in to help doctors educate those who are most influential. How? They can step in to bridge the gap between doctors and influencers and help create open lines of communication to share accurate and affordable information.    

What can healthcare communicators do differently? 

  • Work with clients to create powerful ways to spread accurate information without creating additional stress or excess work for them in a manageable manner. 
    • Social media is not going to go away so doctors and pharma need to meet people where they are.   
  • Lean into the ways health communications can increase public health knowledge on social media and eliminate the misinformation and asymmetry between doctors and patients. Healthcare communicators can:   
    • Encourage consumers to fact check and spot false information.
    • Highlight that HCPs are the professionals, and everyone is different – regardless of the information on TikTok, the consumers should always seek medical advice.
    • Partner with HCPs who are interested in influencing on social media to build their online presence and develop their content. 

About the Author:

Kathy Moriarty, MSW, Director, Behavioral Strategy, has over 12 years of experience in the life science and marketing industries. Her career has spanned providing care directly to patients, to developing strategic marketing plans and deliverables, to applying behavioral science insights to address audiences’ needs and challenges.

Kathy’s therapeutic expertise includes oncology, chronic kidney disease, narcolepsy, obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and mental health conditions. She is experienced in supporting behavior change on both a micro and macro level, including defining key behavioral challenges and identifying evidence-based techniques to drive change. 

Kathy has an MSW from Loyola University Chicago. She has worked as a therapist at a community-based mental health clinic and at an employee assistance program. She has also worked in marketing and advertising at companies including at IQVIA and evoke micromass.