The Medfluencer is In: How COVID-19 Produced a New Variant of Influencers

By Joanne de Leon
The Medfluencer is In: How COVID-19 Produced a New Variant of Influencers
Rewind—the year is 2020 and officials have all ordered us to stay at home. What did we, so new to quarantine in the 21st century, do? We hunkered down, baked banana bread, and of course, camped out online.

Enter the medfluencer, one of the more worthwhile Internet trends to gain traction in the pandemic as people scrambled for timely and reliable information on the novel coronavirus.

A portmanteau of “medical” and “influencer,” “medfluencer” literally describes a social media celebrity from the medical field. The term is as inherently 2020 to us as dance trends or dalgona coffee, but medfluencers have been around way before that.

Vox once coined “nursefluencer” for Sarah Warren, also known as shesinscrubs on Instagram. We can’t forget Dr. Adam Smith, or Doc Adam for short, either. Best known for being that Tagalog-speaking Australian doctor-vlogger, he has been active on Twitter and Youtube since 2017.

While other medfluencers have since been propelled to celeb status due to Hollywood-grade looks or a claim on the niche (yet ultra satisfying), more everyday nurses and doctors like Dr. Noc, or Morgan McSweeney in real life, focused on the pandemic.

As TikTok exploded to global and mainstream use in the early days of quarantine, so did false information and unbacked claims on COVID-19 (“Plandemic”—ring any bells?). Dr. Noc became one of the many experts who rolled up their white coat sleeves to debunk all that misinformation on the platform themselves.

#DocTok will see you now

The way TikTok’s algorithm endlessly feeds users with videos of similar content already makes it a battle of quantity over quality. It doesn’t matter if a conspiracy theorist has 100 or 100k followers, or if you follow them or not—if you watch one #Plandemic video, more like it will appear on the For You page. This is how any video could amass thousands to millions of views on TikTok.

With TikTok’s mostly young user base, fact-checking has never been more dire. The youth are the least likely to suffer from severe COVID-19, but they’re also the most likely to spread it to older and more vulnerable populations.

Dr. Rose Marie Leslie is a chief family medicine resident and a TikToker with 908.1k followers. In an interview with Time, she said it’s important to reach young people at a time they’re “really hungry for health information, but don’t know where to look for it and often aren’t going to the doctor frequently.”

And how do they do it? #DocToks range from straightforward explainers to expansive alternate universe skits starring themselves, all in the name of medical science. It’s easy-to-watch, informative, and best of all, it’s an easy one million views.

Naturally, it hasn’t been easy. Writing, filming, and editing one’s own content on top of a demanding, on-call schedule is extra work. Christina Kim, an oncology nurse with 228k followers on TikTok, has battled fake news and critics. If their trouble, however, saves a few more people from a positive diagnosis or worse, a trip to a crowded ER, then they feel it should be worth it.

That’s where the kicker lies. Influencer culture has primed us for medfluencers. What sets the latter apart from the typical endorsers brands have pitched to us in recent years is the sense of obligation that comes with every EduTok or IG Reel they post.

Sure, they make some money off their views—med student turned Youtube star America Revere claimed it’s helped her pay off student loans—but that’s just a secondary perk. They primarily do it to keep us healthy and informed at minimal cost and maximum entertainment, true to Doc Adam’s promise of “effective, safe, and free” medical advice. If anything, medfluencers make our collective doomscrolling experience more worthwhile.

A remedy to the times

Clear and concise health communications have always been relevant for as long as humans have battled with disease. In the age of #TMI and misinformation, engaging yet factual content is a step towards media literacy. If those little blue check marks mean anything, it encourages people, especially the youth, to verify their sources of information now.

“There clearly was an appetite for scientific content, but nothing so much as like it is now,” said Dr. Noc in an interview with MedPage. “What I'm hoping is that this interest will translate even after the pandemic, after people get vaccinated, they'll still want to consume pro-health, medical scientific information on social media.”

Medfluencers also make us exercise this often neglected muscle called empathy. A medical practitioner’s work is empathic by nature. In urging viewers to take up public health measures like getting vaccinated and keeping masks on, they ask us to protect ourselves and other people around us too.

“I genuinely want this pandemic to end. I want people to recognize what we need to do to make it end,” said Kim. “And I have responsibility, now with this platform that I have, I think it would almost be irresponsible to step away from that.”

Make sure you’re heard. Let’s work together.