TikTok – Time for physicians to pay attention?


Meet Dr. Naheed Dosani (@NaheedD), a palliative care physician at the William Osler Health System north of Toronto and arguably Canada’s first TikTok physician superstar.

Since the beginning of the year, Dr. Dosani has been using the new social media platform to educate the public about palliative care and end-of-life issues. With more than 6,000 followers since January, his posts have more than 400,00 views and some of his videos have received more than 800 comments.

Describing itself as “a destination for short-form mobile videos”, TikTok is a Chinese-owned app that was launched in 2017 and has become hugely successful, especially among young people, as a place to post short-form lip-synch videos and act-out memes. Not surprisingly, in the short-time of its existence, some physicians and health care organizations have been quick to take advantage of TikTok to spread their messages.

Some of the medical profession’s initial forays into TikTok have proven controversial while other physicians in the US are garnering thousands of followers and millions of views for their humorous but informative posts.

As a recent New York Times article noted:

Although medical professionals have long taken to social media to share healthy messages or promote their work, TikTok poses a new set of challenges, even for the internet adept. Popular posts on the app tend to be short, musical and humorous, complicating the task of physicians hoping to share nuanced lessons on health issues like vaping, coronavirus, nutrition and things you shouldn’t dip in soy sauce. And some physicians who are using the platform to spread credible information have found themselves the targets of harassment.

One of the most high-profile of these cases was Dr. Nicole Baldwin, a pediatrician in Cincinnati, who had a TikTok post about vaccine-preventable diseases and countering the notion that vaccines cause autism. She received a number of threats through her social media accounts including one that said “Dead doctors don’t lie.”

The activity prompted one of medicine’s most astute students of social media, Dr. Bryan Vartabedian (@Doctor_V) to write several blogs (@33charts) about the platform and comment “When you look at what Dr. Baldwin went through after this simple video it might make you wonder why any doctor would participate in this kind of thing.”

He added:

So is this kind of education and personal exposure still a physician’s obligation? I have to wonder. Dr. Baldwin’s experience is not what health professionals deserve when they decide to join the public conversation. While bullying isn’t new, I always believed that the crowd would correct the rogue outliers – regulation wasn’t necessary. But the anti-vaccine misinformation warfare unit increasingly defies all normal social forces. 

In a follow-up post, he noted “nobody cares about TikTok. Just like no one cares about electricity,” noting it was the connection social media brings that people care about,and not the platform.

I recently asked Dr. Dosani (via Twitter of course) about his experiences with TikTok:

What prompted you to try Tik Tok in this way? 

I’ve always been active on social media, especially Twitter. Over the years, I’ve found it to be an important way to connect with likeminded people who are interested in issues related to palliative care and social justice in healthcare.

When I learned about TikTok, I was intrigued by the opportunity to build this community with general audiences in a creative and engaging way. Particularly with an audience so ready to learn more about the topics I am focused on as a physician.

What has the feedback been from your peers and others- good or bad?

 I have been encouraged by the response from my peers who also value the importance of public education on palliative care and social justice issues. Those of us working in palliative care routinely explain what we do with our patients, families and sometimes even health professionals.

This platform has provided a powerful opportunity to broaden the conversation through brief, bite-sized bits of credible information.

Do you think this platform works for a topic such as palliative care?

Absolutely. While dying and death is something that affects us all, palliative care is still a relatively unknown or misunderstood area of care. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response to my posts so far. I have heard from thousands of people who have shared their support and their experiences. This encourages me to keep the conversation going and hopefully reach people who will benefit from a greater understanding of palliative care and social justice.

While Dr. Dosani is one of the first Canadian physicians I know of to take advantage of TikTok others have been quick to find time for the new platform.

Most recently the World Health Organization has partnered with TikTok to circulate information about COVID-19TikTokWHO

With every new popular social media platform there are some within medicine and health care who will be quick to sense its value. While some like Twitter prove of lasting value, others like Snapchat have proven much more limited in adding value.

As always, for TikTok, time will only tell. But physicians like Dr. Dosani are certainly help show the way.


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