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Healthcare Influencers Gain Popularity, But Are They Crossing the Ethical Line?

Influencer marketing has penetrated all spheres of life, including medicine, as doctors and nurses become web celebrities.

Mainstream celebrities, fashionistas and beauty influencers have been reigning social media for some time. They are earning not just fame, but a living (an estimated $1,000 per 100,000 Instagram followers), promoting their lifestyle and advertising various products, including dietary supplements, rapid weight-loss pills, and health-related devices.

It’s a well-known fact that this industry gains traction because it’s offering an easy way to achieve your goals. Most people with critical thinking would at least question the safety and effectiveness of such products, especially when advertised by non-professionals in the medical field. But what about healthcare specialists selling pharmaceuticals and giving medical advice through social media?

Doctors’ online influence seen as public service

The last year saw a spike of doctors and nurses gaining popularity on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. Some of them created viral content that sparked questions over the moral and safety aspects of their marketing collaborations.

Some of the MDs on social media see their online presence as a public service, as they seek to combat misinformation and educate their viewers and followers.

“It’s an educational platform,” says Dr. Mike Varshavski as quoted by the New York Post. “It’s almost like subliminal learning. You might be laughing at memes, but really I’m explaining what pneumothorax is. I’m going to put the most medically accurate, evidence-based information out there.”

Also known as the Hot Doctor, Varshavski has 3.4 million followers on Instagram and almost 5 million on YouTube. His online influence is certainly serving him for more than spreading knowledge, as it brings him in a seven-figure sum a year. One of his collaborations is with medical apparel company Figs. The brand is one of the first to recognize social media influencers as a key part of its marketing strategy. While the terms of Figs’ deals with influencers aren’t public, many healthcare professionals on Instagram admit their endorsements provide them with free scrubs every month.

Cheapening or humanizing the profession?

According to Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, doctors’ collaborations with companies like Figs are  “cheapening” and “abusing” the medical degree. His view has been echoed by other critics who see the ethical line crossed by doctors and nurses on social media. The more moderate of them just call for a clear policy defining what’s right when it comes to practitioners’ posts on social media.

No doubt, healthcare professionals hold greater responsibility and can’t just promote supplements that promise results without scientific evidence. Some of these products are even potentially dangerous, as the lack of proper regulation in many countries allows companies to sell all sorts of pills in this category without disclosing their ingredients.

“I’ve gotten pitched on weight-loss supplements, antibacterial bed sheets, a TV show that will say, ‘Let’s do CAT scans on everybody to try and catch cancer early,’ and all that crosses medical lines,” Dr. Mike was quoted as saying.

On the other side of the coin, advocates of doctors’ online presence claim social media allows them to humanize the profession, making healthcare specialists more accessible. It also offers an inside view into the field, showing common problems such as odd hours, burnout and even the lack of a comfortable and creative outlet.

“One of the amazing benefits of social media is that medical professionals can show their whole selves,” Jenny Seyfried, Figs’ vice president of marketing, told the New York Post. “In addition to being professionals, they’re people,” he added.

So, let’s round-up! The presence of doctors and nurses on social media is a trend to persist and as long as it doesn’t cross the medical and ethical line, or violate patient privacy and medical records, it is a good thing for both users and companies. It’s a possibility for the pharmaceutical industry to promote their products and for patients to get informed of the offerings. It can also present a platform for big debates in the field, such as vaccines, supplements, treatments, and prevention.

Yet as noted by medical student and blogger Kamilah Evans, who has 14.2k followers on Instagram, it is okay for a doctor to push one pharmaceutical product over another, but only after a one-to-one setting and considering the patient’s medical history. So when it comes to your health, you should always seek personal medical advice.

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Written by Deyana

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