The use of TikTok to reach patients is growing in the health care community, but is it a good fit for pharmacists?
Syed Zafar, PharmD, stands in front of his phone’s camera wearing his white lab coat. The screen rotates his image slowly while speech bubbles pop up around him, relaying negative things he’s heard about his career in pharmacy, such as “You’re not a doctor” and “Over 300k in debt.” A box at the bottom says “[By the way] PharmD = Doctor of Pharmacy.”
Zafar is one of many medical professionals using TikTok, the social media app widely adopted by teens to share brief videos of themselves, typically dancing and singing. Zafar believes TikTok can be a useful tool to educate teens and young adults about healthy lifestyle choices. Although some health care providers agree with Zafar, others believe the use of TikTok could be minimizing patients’ concerns and eroding trust.
With more than 1.5 billion downloads, the app has overtaken other social media giants, such as Instagram.1 The app was originally called Musical.ly, but after it was bought by Chinese company ByteDance in 2018, it merged with their own video app and became TikTok. Within a month of its debut, TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and SnapChat in monthly installs with 1 billion downloads that month, according to Teen Vogue.1
Although TikTok is largely populated by teens, health care professionals have been increasingly using social media to share information, debate policy and practice issues, promote healthy behaviors, and interact with patients.
According to a report published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a survey of more than 4000 physicians found that over 90% used some form of social media for personal activities, and 65% used the sites for professional reasons.2
Pharmacists, however, have been slow to adopt social media.2 According to the report, most growth in pharmacists’ professional use of social media has been based around pharmacist-only social networks, rather than reaching out to other medical professionals or engaging with patients.2
Although the potential for patient education is certainly present, the report also emphasized the dangers that may lurk for medical professionals on social media, including damage to their professional image. Some examples of unprofessional behavior on social media include violations of patient privacy, using inappropriate language, and negative comments about patients, employers, or schools, according to the report.2
Several health care professionals have gone viral for the wrong reasons on TikTok, such as a nurse who goes by D Rose on the app. D Rose published a video of herself as a fictional patient coughing in a hospital gown, before appearing back in her medical scrubs and mocking the patient for faking her symptoms. She captioned the video “We know when y’all are faking.”3 According to CNN, the video kicked off a retaliatory movement in which social media users shared times when their medical providers didn’t believe them.4
“The airing of frustrations, or ‘venting,’ regarding patients also occurs in online forums and is not recommended,” the NCBI report said.2
Although Zafar acknowledged that there are certainly “proper” ways for medical professionals to use TikTok, adding that the opportunities to engage with people in a positive way far outweigh the few examples of problematic behavior.
“I would argue that if anything, it increases patient trust,” Zafar said. “What it allows is that now there’s a lot of young kids, you have a very different range of age groups that are on it, and now they have the means to ask a physician or a pharmacist the questions they wanted to ask but didn’t know how to ask.”
Zafar himself aims to help pharmacy students or anyone pursuing a career in medical fields. He remembered seeking out mentors and advisors when he was in school and said TikTok is a great opportunity to spread his knowledge. Students can ask questions in the comments or direct message the content creators. Zafar said they’re more likely to get a response on TikTok than on some other websites.
Now a pharmacovigilance scientist with Greenwich Biosciences, Zafar said it’s important for all TikTok users to find their niche. He said he’s seen many nurses educating patients, as well as lawyers giving legal advice and physicians discussing their careers on the app. However, not everyone has to focus on patient education, he said.
For pharmacists interested in getting started on TikTok, Zafar said that’s his first suggestion: find your niche. There’s a large opportunity to raise the value of the pharmacist, he said, by discussing why they’re relevant to patients’ lives and why they’re important in the health care continuum.
His second tip was to continuously put out content that appeals to your audience. Be aware that TikTok has a younger audience compared with sites such as Facebook, so different content may do better on one site than on others. Zafar said he’s seen a lot of content on TikTok revolving around advocacy and education, but he added that self-deprecating humor can make it more relatable and accessible.
The use of social media to engage with patients and the general public is only going to grow, and increasing numbers of people are turning to the internet for answers, Zafar noted.
“The internet is just the way we communicate now,” he said. “There’s always going to be one person that’s interested in what you’re doing.”