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  • Writer's pictureAnya Parkhouse

Dr TikTok, a new era in health influencing?

Updated: May 15, 2023

Love it, fear it or simply be baffled by it, TikTok reaches the lives of millions of people around the world every day. Despite being less than 10 years old, it has rapidly developed to influence people’s interests as well as shape their views.


Although mostly known for its entertainment content, TikTok is also awash with health information. Those in the medical and healthcare sector are left with key questions; ‘What part TikTok is playing in providing medical advice’, and ‘what can the industry do about it?’


The meteoric rise of TikTok

TikTok continues to create some staggering statistics. Although only launched in its present form in 2018, by 2022 TikTok was the most downloaded app worldwide.¹ In the USA, TikTok has over 150 million users, more than 40% of the entire population.


Usage is heavily skewed towards younger age groups – the majority are aged 18-24. In the UK, half of 3-17-year-olds in the UK are accessing TikTok. Despite requiring its users to be at least 13 years old. Data also suggests 25% of UK 5–7-year-olds and 32% of 8–11-year-olds are using the site.²


Older people represent a much smaller proportion of users but given that TikTok has more than a billion users worldwide, the numbers are still large. In the USA, it’s estimated that just 16% of users are aged 60-643 – that’s 24 million people.


Chasing Google

A site of TikTok’s size will naturally have many uses – including as a search engine. In 2021 TikTok received more visits than Google. It has been claimed that around 40% of young people would use TikTok or Instagram, rather than Google, to find somewhere to go for lunch.⁴


TikTok is now also shaping news consumption. Use of TikTok specifically for news increased fivefold in just over three years, from 3% in 2020 to 15% in 2022.5 Although, there are also indications that TikTok is not a reliable source. A report from September 2022 found that one in five search results on major news stories on TikTok contained misleading information.⁶


Enter Dr TikTok

Not surprisingly, TikTok has also become a source of health information. A recent survey found that a third of generation Z respondents (those born between the mid- to late-1990s and the early 2010s) use social media to discuss illness, with TikTok the preferred platform for seeking health information.⁷


TikTok may seem a natural place to turn for Gen Z and Alpha, especially when it’s difficult to access information elsewhere. Reasons for asking for advice may be healthcare costs, lack of available appointments or a way of dealing with embarrassment about symptoms or a condition.


It’s also possible that some people consuming health information on TikTok did not seek it out directly. The platform’s algorithms present content that might be of interest to a user, meaning clicking on suggested links leads to further content on the same or similar topics.


Relatable content

A key feature of TikTok is that it provides content that many users find relatable. And maybe we all have a lot to learn from TikTok.


Seeing the face of a person and hearing their voice makes TikTok feel more ‘real’ to many users, often providing a sense of trust (even if misplaced). There’s a large audience group that like or even prefer consuming information through video.


For a young person recently diagnosed with a chronic condition, watching someone with the same diagnosis describe their experiences can feel both comforting and helpful in what can otherwise be a particularly distressing and isolating time.


On a practical level, patient advocates have insights into the daily realities of living with their condition. For example, there are plenty of videos on TikTok of people with diabetes sharing how they apply their insulin pumps or tips about travelling with medication.


How risky is Dr TikTok’s advice?

From a health perspective, one of the most significant risks associated with TikTok is misinformation. Although TikTok has policies on taking action against misinformation,⁸ it doesn’t take long to find low-quality medical content that has slipped through. Research has documented examples on a variety of topics from Monkeypox9to epilepsy,¹⁰ where some content has been found to contain inappropriate or even dangerous advice.¹¹


Inaccurate or misleading information can lead to real-life consequences. The widely covered global shortages of Ozempic (semaglutide) for diabetic patients have been largely attributed to people posting on TikTok about how they’ve used it to achieve weight loss.⁶


Doctors in the UK have reported concerns that parents are turning down vitamin K injections for their new-born babies as a result of incorrect information shared on TikTok. Even if accurate, there are numerous videos containing graphic details that some viewers may find upsetting or distressing.


User-generated TikTok videos are simply not reviewed for quality in the way that medical advice is elsewhere.


Taking action – developing a strategy for TikTok in health or pharma

Deciding whether and how to engage with TikTok presents challenging decisions. A strategy for TikTok can be developed by breaking down the approach into stages:


· Assess impact

The first step is to assess what part TikTok might be playing in shaping the views of your target audience or could do in the future. For therapy areas where a notable proportion of patients are under the age of 25, this is particularly relevant.


· Review regularly

Whatever position is chosen on TikTok, it will need regular review. Strategies will need to adapt as situations change. BBC news, for example, initially stayed away from TikTok but later changed its position¹², not least due to the risk of misinformation. It now posts regular content to its more than one million followers (despite staff being advised to remove TikTok from corporate phones due to privacy and security fears.¹³


· Supporting medical professionals - educate and inform

A challenge with TikTok is that the split in usage by age group means that on many different topics, not least healthcare, adults are simply not seeing the same content as children. Consider audience groups who may find it helpful to have a briefing about TikTok. From a physician’s perspective, it may be useful to gain an understanding of what information patients have been consuming about their condition. The same might apply to parents.


· Engaging with TikTok

Where a decision is made to engage with TikTok there are different ways of doing this – for example directly at a corporate level, through patient or doctor advocates or with advertising. Strategies need careful planning and with organic content there are no guarantees of reach or impact. Moderation is also likely to present compliance problems, so engage early with regulatory teams and refer to experiences of others in the sector.


· Combatting misinformation

The best way to combat misinformation is to provide easy access to accurate, helpful and reliable information from trusted sources. In the overall marketing mix, TikTok itself may or may not be a helpful channel to use. Where there are serious concerns about misinformation and the risks to public health, engagement with TikTok itself may be required.


What’s next for Dr TikTok?

TikTok is large, changing rapidly and fuelling plenty of debates over its pros and cons. When today’s graduates started medical school, TikTok barely existed. Now, hashtags like diabetes, type1diabetes and t1d each have billions of views.


The healthcare and pharmaceutical industries need to keep abreast of developments, regularly reviewing what impact content on TikTok might be having on patients and considering both the opportunities and the risks. Keeping up is a challenge, but TikTok is too big to ignore.



References


1. Statista. Most downloaded apps worldwide 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1285960/top-downloaded-mobile-apps-worldwide/ (2023).

2. Ofcom. Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0027/255852/childrens-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2023.pdf (2023).

3. Statista. U.S. TikTok users by age 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1095186/tiktok-us-users-age/ (2023).

4. Huang, K. For Gen Z, TikTok Is the New Search Engine. The New York Times (2022).

5. Newman, N., Fletcher, R., Robertson, C. T., Eddy, K. & Kleis Nielsen, R. Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022.

6. Burki, T. Social media and misinformation in diabetes and obesity. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol 10, 845 (2022).

7. Mcquater, K. Report shows influence of social media for healthcare information. Research Live (2023).

8. Combating misinformation | TikTok Combating misinformation.

9. Shi, A. et al. Mpox (monkeypox) information on TikTok: analysis of quality and audience engagement. BMJ Glob Health 8, e011138 (2023).

10. Jiang, K., Nordli, D. R. & Galan, F. The devil is in the details: Understanding how misinformation regarding epilepsy manifests in TikTok videos. Epileptic Disorders (2023) doi:10.1002/epd2.20036.

11. U.S. Food & Drug administration. FDA warns about serious problems with high doses of the allergy medicine diphenhydramine (Benadryl) . FDA Drug Safety Communication https://www.fda.gov/drugs/drug-safety-and-availability/fda-warns-about-serious-problems-high-doses-allergy-medicine-diphenhydramine-benadryl (2023).

12. Charlotte Tobitt. Why TikTok is one of the ‘main priorities’ at BBC News for 2023. Press Gazette (2023).

13. Kleinman, Z., Rhoden-Paul, A. & Vallance, C. BBC advises staff to delete TikTok from work phones. BBC news(2023).


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