Medical TikTok Runs Rampant with Medical Misinformation

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Posted on May 16th, 2023 by Sara Heath

Medical misinformation is common on the popular app TikTok, leaving experts to suggest stronger provider communication and patient education to dispel myths.

Healthcare providers are already aware of the risk of medical misinformation on social media sites, but a new study from researchers at the University of Arizona College of Medicine showed just how common that unverified information is on the popular app TikTok.

Looking specifically at TikTok posts about liver disease, the researchers found around 40 percent of videos contained medical misinformation, usually with posts pushing “fad diets,” “detox” drinks, and herbal remedies.

Healthcare is navigating a whole new world of social media, which can have serious implications for patient engagement. On the one hand, social media has the potential to broadcast public health messaging, like when some healthcare organizations used the platforms to inform patients when they should visit the ER with suspected RSV cases and when they should go into urgent care.

But there is, of course, the darker side of social media that runs rampant with medical misinformation. This was clearly visible during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and is evident now with studies like this showing how platforms like TikTok can be home to unverified and often inaccurate medical misinformation.

Led by Macklin Loveland, MD, the study’s lead author and an internal medicine resident at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, the researchers examined 2,223 TikTok posts tagged with the terms “cirrhosis” and “liver disease” between October and November of 2022. The researchers compared the content of the posts with evidence-based practices from leading medical organizations.

READ MORE: Navigating Social Media’s Public Health, Medical Misinformation Problem

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Loveland said social media platforms should do more to flag medical misinformation. Meanwhile, clinicians themselves should work to build a bigger online presence.

“It’s clear that more needs to be done to flag misinformation on TikTok, including doctors becoming more heavily represented on the platform to combat misinformation with accurate, science-based information,” Loveland suggested. “In general, TikTok and social media platforms are great sources to disseminate health information. However, we need to put more guardrails in place against false or misleading claims.”

Some social media platforms have already started to crack down on medical misinformation previously peddled on their sites. YouTube, for example, has repeatedly refined its content standards for videos discussing certain disease states, most recently changing the guidelines for eating disorder content. It has also added a label to videos created by credentialed clinicians.

Steps like those YouTube has taken, and Loveland recommended, will be essential to gaining patient trust. The reality is that patients trust these online sources of information, including social media, according to an April 2023 survey from the de Beaumont Foundation. While providers are more likely to put their faith in medical journals, patients are more willing to search online and look on Facebook and other social media sites for medical information.

Providers meeting the patients where they are—TikTok and Facebook, and other social media platforms—may increase the odds that patients will be exposed to verified and accurate healthcare information.