It’s no secret that TikTok’s popularity has skyrocketed over the past couple of years. It’s a fun entertainment app with a fast-paced format that keeps users engaged for hours on end. Users of the app fondly refer to what type of videos appear on their For You Page as their “side” of TikTok: food TikTok, art TikTok, FrogTok — just to name a few.
Well, I, along with millions of others, am on the medical side of TikTok. When I first joined the app, I saw a few doctors on my For You Page, and I quickly followed them when I realized how much new information I could learn from their videos. Their content was informative (did anyone else learn more useful sex ed from TikTok gynecologists than they did in high school?) and just as entertaining as non-medical videos.
TikTok provides doctors with a far-reaching platform, which can help to democratize health care. “It’s a way to reach people and get them information that’s actually accurate,” according to Dr. Brittany Craiglow ’04 MED ’09, a board-certified dermatologist and graduate of the Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Craiglow creates a mix of content on TikTok, covering topics from general skincare tips to signs of melanoma. One of her most viewed TikToks is an informational video about two practices that harm skin health — smoking and indoor tanning. Videos like this are contributing to a positive movement in the health care industry. For so long, it has been the responsibility of the patient to know when they need health care and to then seek out a health care provider. Now, that system is being turned on its head. TikTok is highly accessible, and videos like this educate people who may not have even realized that they needed this information.
However, I began to question the medical side of TikTok when I saw a video of my own dentist pop up on my feed. I was stunned. This is the man who puts his hands in my mouth and tells me that I do a great job flossing. Seeing a video of him making jokes about how he has to change his vocabulary to talk to his Gen Z patients was unsettling. I felt like some line had been crossed, like I’d seen something that I shouldn’t have. It made me realize that all of these doctors I watch on TikTok aren’t public figures. They’re not social media influencers. They’re real doctors with real patients.
In the medical community, there have always been guidelines, spoken and unspoken, about how doctors are supposed to conduct themselves, ranging from the general disapproval of visible tattoos to concrete rules laid out by HIPAA. With the movement of medical professionals onto TikTok, though, it appears that some of these guidelines are shifting. As a result, patient-provider relationships are changing as well.
“Throughout training we are often advised to conduct ourselves in such a manner that if a patient saw you in public they wouldn’t be uncomfortable or lose trust in your expertise,” said Dr. Tessa Commers, a board-certified pediatrician with over a million followers on TikTok. As she describes in her TikTok bio, she uses the app for “promoting teen body awareness, being real abt self-love & safe sex.” She feels proud of the content she’s shared on TikTok, and thinks any of her patients and their parents could comfortably watch her videos — and they have. In fact, her most positive feedback comes from parents, who often use her videos as a way to broach uncomfortable subjects with their kids.
Dr. Commers has used TikTok to bring her health care guidance directly into the homes of her patients, and while she has encountered a few detractors, she has deemed none of their concerns legitimate. (Some commenters, for instance, told her she should not be saying there are more than two genders). Kunal Sood, a TikTok doctor board-certified in anesthesiology and pain medicine, told the News that “there is this other side where people don’t like that doctors are on TikTok.” While the majority of his content is educational, he does post some content for the sole purpose of entertainment — such as videos of him participating in popular TikTok trends. He said he occasionally receives critical comments on his videos, which he doesn’t understand.
“Even the president of the United States has a normal life — he plays golf,” said Dr. Sood, who thinks that doctors should be allowed to have a life outside of work where they can post on TikTok without criticism. He doesn’t believe this trend has any negative effects on patient-provider relationships; the patients who have seen his videos have liked them. He does admit, however, that many of his patients are not in the primary user demographic of TikTok.
The doctors I interviewed haven’t faced serious backlash for posting on TikTok, but there has been some discomfort. Dr. Craiglow said it still makes her cringe when patients mention that they saw her on TikTok. But she followed up by saying that TikTok may actually make her more credible with her teenage patients, who see her as keeping up with the times. There’s an initial moment of unease when she realizes that patients have seen her more personal side, but it does not affect her patient care. Still, as doctors come into our homes via TikTok, something fundamental in our relationship with them is changing. It’s not just me who was uncomfortable seeing my doctor on the app. For doctors, the feeling can be just as bizarre.
For Hannah Huang ’24, a Yale student on the pre-med track, the presence of doctors on social media has allowed her to see a day-to-day representation of what it’s like to be a woman in medicine. When asked if she would feel comfortable being treated by any of the doctors she follows, she said, “I feel like it would be weird, but it wouldn’t stop me from scheduling an appointment with them if I needed to… They are all very professional on social media.”
Yet, it is clear that the rise of medical professionals on TikTok represents a seismic shift. There has been a long-standing “wall” between health care providers and patients. The doctor is supposed to know about the patient, not the other way around. TikTok is dissolving this wall, and the phenomenon could permanently change how patients receive care from their doctors. Maybe not everyone has adapted to this change yet, but we still need to tread cautiously.
There’s more to worry about than just awkwardness. Social media provides doctors with the ability to profit. Even good doctors may find it difficult to ignore frequent solicitations by companies asking them to promote ineffective or harmful products. This could aid the spread of medical disinformation and put patients’ health in grave danger. This is a conversation the medical field needs to have on a large scale, and soon.
It’s hard to know yet if the benefits of medical TikTok outweigh its harms. Maybe there are patients who no longer feel comfortable going to their primary care providers after seeing them dancing in a TikTok video, but there are also people who decide to share their symptoms with their doctors after seeing their health concerns legitimized in a TikTok. Maybe there are a few doctors who will accept monetary offers from for-profit companies after going viral on TikTok, but maybe this won’t be widespread enough to impact the trust people have in their health care providers. And maybe the next time I see my dentist, I’ll confess that I saw him on TikTok.
Annie Sidransky | email@example.com