Widespread usage of social media platforms has contributed to incredible discoveries, collaborative projects, and useful knowledge sharing, especially in medicine. But these platforms can also be vehicles for medical misinformation, meaning there’s always a risk that they’ll inflict harm on those who succumb to bogus “facts.” Many self-proclaimed social media “experts” offer phony medical advice that is ambiguous at best and outright dangerous at worst, and the average consumer may have trouble separating truth from falsehood.
This medical advice may consist of prescription suggestions, ointments to use, or trendy “life hacks” that claim to boost health and wellness. These suggestions are often some mixture of useless and innocuous, so while they’re not particularly effective, they’re also not likely to be painful or harmful for anyone who tries them.
But that’s not to say real danger doesn’t exist. As one example, we’ve all likely heard about ill-advised “challenges” that spread on social media from time to time. These challenges tend to make headlines when an unwitting participant ends up in the ER or, worse, dead. Remember the Tide POD craze, which involved kids eating them rather than using them on a load of whites? Or the lesser-known “salt and ice” challenge, where participants poured salt on their bodies and placed ice on the salt? The former is obviously very dangerous, but most probably don’t realize that the salt and ice combination can cause injuries similar to frostbite.
This begs the question: If social media is fraught with medical risk and misinformation, how can we trust anything we see or hear on one of these popular platforms? As it turns out, a growing number of licensed doctors have taken to social media to dispel medical misinformation and explain the danger behind some of these trending challenges and so-called “life hacks.” They’re on a mission to debunk click-bait titles and false medical claims, and they do so by shouting from the digital streets: “Hey, that’s not quite accurate!”
Medical Misinformation on Social Media
Doctors are countering misinformation and dangerous challenges through various social media channels. While we can’t say exactly how many self-proclaimed “doctors” exist on the internet, here are some of the most prevalent medical myths and challenges you may have seen on YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, and other platforms:
Popular Medical Myths
- Oil pulling for cavities
- Mental health outcomes are always genetic
- “Proffee” is a healthy way to start the day
- A person with a concussion shouldn’t go to sleep
Popular Challenges on TikTok
- Tide POD Challenge
- Salt and Ice Challenge
- Blackout Challenge
- Nyquil Chicken Challenge
- Benadryl Challenge
Licensed Doctors on Social Media: Debunking Medical Myths
By countering and outlining the risks associated with many of these trends and myths, doctors are taking a stand against misinformation that puts lives at risk. We’ve gathered a few examples of tactics doctors use on social channels—things like writing blogs, doing interviews, or creating their own videos—to directly combat lies, myths, and downright dangerous activities.
One of the fastest and most effective ways doctors correct misinformation is through reaction videos, a trend where doctors or specialists watch a video or TV show and correct misinformation in real time. These can be very entertaining and are a great way to hold the viewer’s attention while the expert sets the record straight. Here are a few of our faves:
Mama Doctor Jones – Ready, Set, Reaction
Danielle Jones, MD—known as Mama Doctor Jones on social media—is a practicing OBGYN who takes to the YouTube and TikTok streets to educate viewers and create engaging, informational content. In this video, Dr. Jones reacts to what she calls “outrageous” medical TikToks, countering incorrect notions in the gynecology specialty and explaining the medical facts behind each video. Here’s another example where she debunks viral birth control myths to dispel any misconceptions about taking or using birth control pills. She also addresses some of the ways misinformation spreads on other platforms like Instagram.
Dr. Chirag J. Patel, MD, FACS – Busting Eye Health Myths
Dr. Chirag Patel is a board-certified ophthalmologist who creates TikTok reaction videos to debunk myths and misinformation. In this video, Dr. Patel addresses some of the common myths about eye health. Have you ever heard that eating carrots makes your eyesight better? We have too, but did you know there’s very little evidence to support this? Dr. Patel addresses this and other myths while educating viewers about the realities of eye surgery.
Dr. Lopez Okhiai – Debunking Detox Lies
Dr. Lopez Okhiai is a medical doctor who takes to Instagram and TikTok to educate viewers and correct medical rumors using videos and even poetry. In this video, he explains the truth of what “detox” means and why many detox practices we hear about today are simply not effective. He says there’s no scientific evidence that detox and/or liver cleanses do any good for the body, which goes against “common knowledge” that suggests detox is helpful. Here’s another example of him correcting a common myth that cracking your knuckles is bad for you.
Dr. Jennifer Tsai – No More Lies About the Eyes
Jennifer Tsai, OD, is an optometrist who specializes in eye health and vision care. In her videos on both YouTube and TikTok, she addresses common eye-centric topics, including those pesky myths. In this video, she discusses the truth behind blue light and its effect on the human eye. Though research shows that blue light can cause digital eye strain, blue light glasses don’t actually help our eyes that much at all. Myth busted! Here’s another example of Dr. Tsai addressing a common myth that cutting eyelashes makes them grow faster. The truth? It doesn’t, and it can actually cause eye damage!
Another common way doctors counter misinformation is by serving as consultants for news articles and other published pieces. When dangerous TikTok trends gain popularity, doctors will often make their voices heard through popular news outlets to give warnings and highlight the risks involved. These corrections educate the general population and often bring these viral challenges to the attention of parents who may not be aware of their existence. Here are some examples:
Dr. Shawn Evans – The Health Risks of the Tide POD Challenge
In this news clip, Dr. Shawn Evans discusses the dangers of attention-seeking behavior in young adults and why they seem to participate so frequently in challenges like these. Because so many people ate these capsules assuming they’d be harmless, the doctor details what the chemicals inside Tide PODs actually do to the body to demonstrate their destructive capacity. Dr. Evans clarifies that over 80% of people who attempt the challenge will have symptoms that send them to the ER. That’s not a challenge worth trying!
Dr. Brian Wagers, MD – What Happens to the Skin – Salt and Ice Challenge
The Salt and Ice Challenge has been around for over a decade, and pros like Dr. Brian Wagers were consulted for news articles to outline what actually happens when participants attempt this challenge. In this article, Dr. Wagers details the long-term effects of the challenge and the chemical reaction that occurs when ice and salt meet. One of his more noteworthy quotes: “Some of the pictures you’ll see on the internet and YouTube, those kids have third-degree burns. I mean it turns it to leather essentially. So you lose the blood vessels that are in there. You lose sensation, because of the nerve endings … You’ll never have hair if you do it on your arms. So you’ll have a bald patch.”
Dr. Daria Long – COVID-19 Vaccine Myths
Daria Long, MD, is an emergency room physician who dispels myths about COVID-19 vaccines. Rumors have circulated for a while about a rise in cardiovascular events among young athletes who got COVID-19 vaccines, and Dr. Daria addresses these concerns in various formats. In this video, she breaks down an article about young athlete deaths from cardiac events and addresses the claims one by one. She explains why the data doesn’t show that the vaccines are causing cardiovascular events so that viewers can get a different—and more educated—perspective. She also dispels the same myth in a written blog on the topic.
Dr. Chisom Ikeji – Celebrity Food and Nutrition Advice
Should you eat the same diet as celebrities? As one recent example, many of you likely saw headlines about Gwyneth Paltrow, who said in a podcast that she likes to eat bone broth—and nothing else—for lunch. This type of advice is dangerous for people looking to abide by the rules of proper nutrition, and modeling these celebrity eating habits can contribute to long-term body image or self-esteem issues. Dr. Chisom Ikeji challenges a wide range of nutritional misinformation on TikTok about everything from weight loss drugs to skin care tips. In this video, she talks about disordered eating and discusses the dangers of listening to celebrities who preach certain diets as “wellness.”
The Importance of Communication in Patient Education
Though doctors are amazing, they can’t remove all medical risk from the world. How could any doctor have predicted that people would need to be told explicitly that Tide PODs are not safe to eat? Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
But doctors—and many other medical professionals—can still have a profoundly positive impact on the patients in their care by encouraging open dialogue and sharing timely, helpful, and accurate information. For instance, patient education can play an important role in any patient’s ability to properly interpret something they hear as misinformation. A patient with even a rudimentary understanding about nutrition will most likely be able to spot when a fad diet is unhealthy, and that understanding can come from conversations with their provider about dieting, exercise, and other wellness topics. The AAFP even explains that patient education is critical to ensuring positive patient outcomes because many leading causes of death—such as heart disease, cancer, and lung disease—can be attributed to an unhealthy lifestyle.1
This is why the voices of trusted medical professionals are crucial to health and patient literacy, which is defined as “the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.”2 Dr. Krupa Playforth, a board-certified pediatrician and founder of The Pediatrician Mom, LLC, believes that dispelling myths is some of the most important work physician influencers can do. While a lot of medical misinformation and dangerous trends spread on social media, Dr. Playforth thinks these platforms help us better understand the kind of potentially harmful information to which the public is being exposed. This provides inspiration for physicians to use their expertise in targeted and effective ways.
“The internet actually has both awesome information on it and a deep rabbit-hole of misinformation,” Dr. Playforth said. “It is fine to take information you found on the internet to your doctor, but if you have a clinician you trust, you should be able to have faith that they have your best interests at heart. At the end of the day, your healthcare provider who knows you, your children, and your family history should be the one you turn to for healthcare advice—not mommy groups or Google.”
As far as guidance for other physicians looking to dispel myths they see and hear online, Dr. Playforth has two pieces of advice: don’t sell out, and develop a thick skin. You need to be able to stick to what you believe in and be willing to let things roll off your back. To quote her directly, “You don’t need to engage with the trolls!”
“There will be brands and companies that reach out to you because your degree gives you credibility—and by extension gives them credibility—and they may be willing to pay for connection and endorsement,” she said. “It is absolutely fine to endorse brands, but remember your ethics and stick to the core principle of working only with brands that provide high-quality products that are based on research and evidence.”
P.S. – You can follow Dr. Playforth on her Instagram page!
Doctors and providers across various specialities are working to educate people on the good, the bad, and the ugly of medical information shared online. Their goal is to counter misinformation at the source by highlighting lies, myths, and dangerous challenges that can lead to significant health problems. By using social media channels to spread the truth, these doctors are able to slowly and steadily improve public health—and maybe even save a life or two in the process!
Improving low health literacy and patient engagement: A social ecological approach, Patient Education and Counseling: https://rb.gy/knycf
- What is Health Literacy? CDC: https://rb.gy/c2d4l