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Medical TikTok Runs Rampant with Medical Misinformation

Medical misinformation is common on the popular app TikTok, leaving experts to suggest stronger provider communication and patient education to dispel myths.

Healthcare providers are already aware of the risk of medical misinformation on social media sites, but a new study from researchers at the University of Arizona College of Medicine showed just how common that unverified information is on the popular app TikTok.

Looking specifically at TikTok posts about liver disease, the researchers found around 40 percent of videos contained medical misinformation, usually with posts pushing “fad diets,” “detox” drinks, and herbal remedies.

Healthcare is navigating a whole new world of social media, which can have serious implications for patient engagement. On the one hand, social media has the potential to broadcast public health messaging, like when some healthcare organizations used the platforms to inform patients when they should visit the ER with suspected RSV cases and when they should go into urgent care.

But there is, of course, the darker side of social media that runs rampant with medical misinformation. This was clearly visible during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and is evident now with studies like this showing how platforms like TikTok can be home to unverified and often inaccurate medical misinformation.

Led by Macklin Loveland, MD, the study’s lead author and an internal medicine resident at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, the researchers examined 2,223 TikTok posts tagged with the terms “cirrhosis” and “liver disease” between October and November of 2022. The researchers compared the content of the posts with evidence-based practices from leading medical organizations.

All said, 883 (around 40 percent) of the posts contained medical misinformation. Medical misinformation most often related to the efficacy of herbal products for addressing liver disease. Other unverified and false content claimed that consuming certain mushrooms, eating beef liver, or doing a parasite cleanse could heal the liver. Those claims are all inaccurate, the researchers clarified.

The good news is, the posts that contained medical misinformation didn’t tend to perform well, or at least not as well as posts that did contain correct and useful information. What the researchers termed “misleading posts” got an average of 1,671 “likes” and 140 “shares” compared to the average 14,463 “likes” and 364 “shares” for accurate posts.

Still, the results put a spotlight on what most healthcare providers have already acknowledged is a growing patient engagement problem. Patients have proven likely to turn to the web for medical advice, and providers are working to understand the misinformation patients view and how to counteract that data.

“Even though inaccurate posts were less popular, they still represent a high volume of misinformation on the platform, leaving people with liver disease susceptible to false claims,” Loveland said in a statement. “Given the high mortality associated with liver disease, the impact of spreading inaccurate claims on such a popular social media platform could have serious clinical ramifications.”

Some healthcare experts have recommended that providers leverage communication skills to detect and then address any information patients consume online. However, that could be an impossible task considering the disproportionate amount of time patients spend outside the clinic.

Loveland said social media platforms should do more to flag medical misinformation. Meanwhile, clinicians themselves should work to build a bigger online presence.

“It’s clear that more needs to be done to flag misinformation on TikTok, including doctors becoming more heavily represented on the platform to combat misinformation with accurate, science-based information,” Loveland suggested. “In general, TikTok and social media platforms are great sources to disseminate health information. However, we need to put more guardrails in place against false or misleading claims.”

Some social media platforms have already started to crack down on medical misinformation previously peddled on their sites. YouTube, for example, has repeatedly refined its content standards for videos discussing certain disease states, most recently changing the guidelines for eating disorder content. It has also added a label to videos created by credentialed clinicians.

Steps like those YouTube has taken, and Loveland recommended, will be essential to gaining patient trust. The reality is that patients trust these online sources of information, including social media, according to an April 2023 survey from the de Beaumont Foundation. While providers are more likely to put their faith in medical journals, patients are more willing to search online and look on Facebook and other social media sites for medical information.

Providers meeting the patients where they are—TikTok and Facebook, and other social media platforms—may increase the odds that patients will be exposed to verified and accurate healthcare information.

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