Here's why a TikTok ban could affect both physicians and their patients

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published March 31, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Lawmakers are debating banning TikTok in the United States, while a ban on TikTok on governmental devices is already underway. There are national security concerns around the app’s use of user data.

  • Health and wellness information is abundant on TikTok, enabling healthcare practitioners (HCPs) to connect with patients in important ways, expand reach, and earn income by using social media.

  • If TikTok were banned, patients would lose access to helpful health information while HCPs may lose income and reach, as well as the ability to educate patients and fight against misinformation.

The studies suggest that for physicians to make a difference, they need to better research and prepare the TikTok videos they’re posting, and use plain language when talking to patients.

Whether you scroll through it on your lunch break, post to it regularly, or go out of your way to avoid it, TikTok—owned by private Chinese company ByteDance—is everywhere. The app (which boasts over 1.5 billion global users) is brimming with health information (and misinformation) and advice from both qualified healthcare professionals (HCPs) and uncredentialed influencers.  

Recently, growing questions around the app’s use of user data has lawmakers in the US—as well as in Canada, Europe, and other countries—banning TikTok from official devices. In fact, the White House told authorities on February 27 that TikTok would need to be deleted from government devices within 30 days.[] 

On Wednesday, March 28, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley set out to force a Senate vote on legislation that would ban TikTok altogether from the United States, calling the app “digital fentanyl.”[] His key argument was that the Chinese government could use the app’s data to access information about the US’s 150 million users. But in a move to block it, Republican Senator Rand Paul objected to the ban under the idea of constitutional rights around free speech. The debate continues. 

So what does TikTok’s potential ban mean for both patients and HCPs?

Digital media, for better or for worse, is a doorway through which people easily access health information. According to a survey of 1,004 people aged 18-75 done by Power, a patient-friendly platform for clinical trials, 51 percent of US adults are turning to the internet for health advice, with only 31 percent reaching for real live physician support. 

Let’s break this trend down a bit more. CharityRx, a pharmacy service, surveyed 2,000 US adults and found that a third of GenZers turned to TikTok specifically before going to their doctor. Why? They think TikTok affords them increased accessibility, affordability, and approachability over what their doctors in-office can offer. And with doctors making fun videos and skits, the fourth wall between patient and HCP breaks down a bit.[]

TikTok also offers value to HCPs. For one, the app provides a way to fight misinformation.[] It’s also been shown to help HCPs blow off steam and process some of the more challenging aspects of the job, according to an article in Entrepreneur.[] More so, TikTok provides a platform for HCPs to publicize research,[] promote their practices, and earn a side income from brand deals and endorsements through social media

What do HCPs think of TikTok in the wake of a potential ban?

Inna A. Husain, MD, medical director of laryngology at Community Hospital in Munster, IN, uses TikTok to educate people on laryngology topics.

Her goal is to help people access quality information. “As a laryngologist, a sub-specialty within ENT, my field is very small. The conditions I treat are not as well known as heart disease, for example, but can still have a significant effect on quality-of-life,” she says. “In addition, finding a specialist such as myself can be challenging; we aren’t in every city, and some need to drive hours to find us. I am very passionate about using social media as an educational tool.” 

Beyond that, TikTok has amplified her work’s reach. “I am a full-time clinician who has published over 30 papers and given national and international talks—but one video going viral has reached more than all of those previous academic pursuits. I have received messages from people who, because of a video, were able to find help for a life-threatening condition, subglottic stenosis.”

Thomas Berk, MD, FAHS, medical director of the virtual neurology clinic at Neura Health, echoes Husain’s sentiments on TikTok’s value. “Where TikTok stands out is that it allows us to connect with an audience on a far more personal level, and make education much more transparent and accessible….There shouldn't be a barrier [to] patient education, regardless of the social media channel. We'd like to think that TikTok won't go away, but if it does, we will develop other ways to better connect with the migraine and headache community.”

On the flip side, there is an abundance of critiques when it comes to the proliferation of health content on TikTok. One study found that patients with diabetes should exercise caution when using the app as an information source,[] while another study found that some physician-made videos utilized both outdated health information and medical terminology that could potentially confuse viewers.[]

 Carole Lieberman, MD, MPH, a psychiatrist, takes issue with the app’s plethora of health misformation. “Anyone can join TikTok and pretend to be a doctor of some sort, dispensing advice that is harmful.[] There are no professional watchdogs to prevent this. As a psychiatrist, I am especially concerned with so-called mental health professionals dispensing advice on TikTok. Many of them have questionable credentials, and many give out bad advice.”

Will TikTok be banned?

Ultimately, researchers see the value in TikTok as a platform where health and wellness information and advice are disseminated—as long as the information is accurate. The Journal of Pediatric Urology found, “TikTok can be used as a resource for health information….however [it] is currently a pit of misinformation with the potential to cause harm to the user.”[]

If TikTok were banned in the United States, HCPs with good intentions and quality videos would lose reach—along with the opportunity to create access and awareness. Many may also lose additional income streams and exposure.[]

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