Medical influencers, or “medfluencers,” are typically healthcare professionals or experts in the medical field, who use social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok to share information and advice related to health and medicine. They can be doctors, nurses, medical students, dietitians, and other healthcare professionals, or individuals with a strong interest in health and medicine.
Over the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been a significant rise in the number of medical influencers on social media. With people spending more time on social media in quarantine, many turned to these platforms for credible information and updates on the pandemic. In fact, medfluencers got so big that we already wrote a whole article about them here.
Fighting misinformation was a chief concern since the early days of the pandemic. Back when people were taking horse medicine and drinking bleach based on popular advice, medfluencers realized the importance of fact-checked, lifesaving information made easily available online. And so, they took matters into their own hands.
Established groups like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were valuable resources for practitioners and patients alike. Through social media, they released timely and comprehensive information on COVID-19. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to the White House; Dr. Vin Gupta, a critical care pulmonologist and NBC News medical analyst; and Dr. Helen Boucher, an infectious disease specialist, shared information about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines on Facebook and Twitter.
Improving patient education and outcomes for free
Before the pandemic, the expertise and experience medfluencers shared have already been valuable to patient education. The goal of patient education is to empower patients to take an active role in their healthcare and make informed decisions about their treatment. Time and again, medfluencers have helped bridge the gap between professionals at facilities and the general public. They not only simplify complex medical concepts, but also provide a mostly free platform for people to get personalized advice. Coinciding with the rise of telemedicine in lieu of physical consultations, online medical advice has helped bring quality healthcare closer to patients with limited access to it.
Dr. Willie Ong is an internal medicine specialist and cardiologist, who is well-known for providing free medical advice on social media platforms such as Facebook since 2013, and YouTube since 2007. He uses these platforms to share information about various topics including hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as answer questions from the public.
There’s also Dr. Mikhail Varshavski, better known as “Doctor Mike,” who is a family physician, professional boxer, and Internet star. He first gained fame through his “Doctor Mike” Instagram account. He regularly shares various pieces of advice on health and wellness, along with his experiences in the field.
Additionally, they can help increase patient engagement and compliance with treatment plans, which can result in better outcomes. For instance, Arshie Larga is a breakout medfluencer who has become one of the most famous TikTokers and Twitter users in the Philippines. As a licensed pharmacist, he would post quick explainers on the proper dosage and effects of common prescription and over-the-counter medications he encountered regularly at work. His content has also been co-opted by the Department of Health to spread awareness on generic drugs.
A 2022 study found that US adults who viewed health-related YouTube videos were 1.33 times more likely to meet the WHO–recommended level of physical activity. This suggests that people with more exposure to free and engaging health content took better care of their health.
An earlier study by Twitter in 2015 also found that health-related conversations on the site “has been a goldmine for the field of epidemiology in that people are often very open and candid about their health issues in Tweets.” Dr. John Brownstein, one of the earliest innovators in “web epidemiology,” “has used Twitter data to study a myriad of interrelated public health issues including chronic disease, disease detection, [and] quality of patient care.” This has helped Brownstein and his team track flu outbreaks on a city-level and determine the side-effects of common medications such as antidepressants and over-the-counter medicines.
With more medfluencers leading informative discussions online, the field—along with improved patient outcomes—can only be expected to grow in the coming years.
Patient beware: An important caveat to medfluencers
While medfluencers and the wider use of social media have grown awareness over the past decade, there are negative implications to it too. Medfluencers’ increasing popularity has led others to argue that some personalities may be unreliable or unqualified, leading them to promote unproven or dangerous treatments—and we can’t say they’re wrong. Some influencers have promoted treatments, diets, or supplements that are not supported by scientific evidence, and may even be harmful. Even verified accounts on Twitter share anti-vaxx sentiment to this day.
However, this shouldn’t deter medfluencers who have the public’s best interests at heart. While their content can’t fully replace actual medical advice and treatment from a healthcare facility, they can still maximize social media as a platform to improve more people’s lives. Ultimately, it boils down to proper media literacy—and being social media-savvy—for the tried and true experts to win against the algorithm and deliver information that’s as correct as it is inclusive.
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M2.0 Communications is a Philippines-based PR company helping brands and businesses engage their target audience through meaningful narratives. We specialize in PR advisory, influencer management, stakeholder communication, reputation management, video production, and media training.