Healthcare and social media: Tool for good or recipe for disaster?

The internet has invaded almost every aspect of our lives, for better or for worse. With the increased accessibility of the internet, there has also been widespread utilization of social media. One of the main leaders in social media right now is TikTok, boasting more than 1.6 billion users by the end of 2022 and expected to reach 1.8 billion by the end of this year.  

Social media is used to share all types of content, including content on healthcare topics. A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that 72% of adult internet users had searched online for information on health-related topics, and this percentage has probably risen since then, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to this, a recent survey by CharityRx found that 1 in 5 Americans turn to TikTok before their doctor when seeking treatment for a health condition.

While curiosity and access to information is important, the lack of scientific oversight on social media allows for a wide distribution of misinformation. I recently coauthored a paper exploring the quality and reliability of TikTok videos related to Achilles tendinopathy (AT), one of the most common foot and ankle overuse injuries. Our study concluded that few videos were authored by or included perspectives from healthcare professionals and using the DISCERN assessment (a well-validated metric), only 1% of total videos received a grading of “fair” and no videos received a scoring of “good” or “excellent.”

With over 1.6 million views related to AT videos on TikTok, this finding poses a significant risk for our patients. Many authors have analyzed the quality of health information in other areas such as COPD, breast and prostate cancer, urinary tract infections, diabetes and scoliosis with mixed results ranging from just satisfactory or acceptable to low or poor. Underlying all these studies is that patients should exercise caution when using TikTok as a source of health information.

What does this mean for people working in healthcare? Our job is to fix things and help our patients, but it’s not as if we can control social media and constantly watch over all forms of healthcare content. Another larger issue is that many people in the U.S. have inadequate access to care and try to seek out information in whatever way they can.

I believe what we CAN do is to do our best to educate the patients we see and guide them toward more reliable avenues of healthcare information in the first place. We can also redirect patients who ask us about something they saw on the internet. We can publish more in open-access journals and online forums, promote these on social media and encourage other health providers, public health experts and academic institutions to write and share as well. See Baylor’s position statement on misinformation. Lastly, it is imperative that we, as providers, continue to advocate for increasing access and addressing any barriers our patients have to receiving care.

By Anthony Tochukwu Duruewuru, third-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine

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