When patients turn to ‘Dr. YouTube’

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published August 15, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • An increasing number of patients are using YouTube to seek out medical information.

  • Many patients watch videos on chronic disease involving the personal accounts of others to supplement guidance from their physicians.

  • Since many YouTube medical videos are inaccurate and untimely, physicians should inform their patients what to look for in high-quality YouTube videos, with authorship being a key indicator of quality.

With 247 million US users as of April 2022, YouTube represents a major Internet draw. The platform, however, is home to much more than just product reviews and funny memes. An increasing number of patients use YouTube to learn more about their medical conditions.

Access to information online is convenient, and diverse content can benefit the reader. Patient use of YouTube to learn more about their medical problems is nothing new. YouTube was established in 2005, and by 2011, 59% of adults searched for medical information online.

Although social media proffers unparalleled access to medical information, some experts say that this information is often biased and inaccurate.

Patient characteristics

Many patients turn to the Internet for emotional support for chronic illness, according to the authors of a review published in JMR Medical Education.[]

These patients focus on videos involving personal experience—likely because they feel that the information provided to them by their doctors is incomplete, and they value the support of others.

The authors also pointed out that younger people and those individuals with higher levels of education are more likely to use the Internet as a resource for health information due to their higher web literacy levels.

Problems with YouTube videos

In a study published in MIS Quarterly, researchers noted that 90% of adults don’t understand basic medical information and are unable to participate in self-care for chronic illnesses.[] Lower levels of health literacy can increase their risk of falling prey to misleading medical information, including videos.

The researchers evaluated nearly 20,000 videos on diabetes posted from various sources. The videos on YouTube varied in how well they relayed medical information, as well as the ability to hold viewers’ attention. The researchers noted that viewers have no way of knowing the accuracy or timeliness of YouTube videos.

Problems with YouTube content have, in fact, been documented.

The authors of the review published in JMR Medical Education cited data that showed that 68% of videos yielded from a YouTube search for tanning bed use gave the practice positive reviews, with no focus on the risk of melanoma.

Results from a study assessing 72 videos concerning cataract surgery also found problems with the content.[]

“Cataract surgery videos are popular on YouTube,” wrote the authors, “but most are not adequately educational. Patients may be receiving biased information from videos created with primary commercial intent."

"Physicians should be aware of the type of information patients may be accessing on YouTube."

Bae, et al.

What can be done

In an editorial published in the HSOA Journal of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine, the authors reflected on how physicians can play a role in their patients’ consumption of medical YouTube videos.[]

They noted that in addition to being misleading, low-quality videos can stir conflict between the patient and physician and lead to confusion and trust issues.

High-quality videos center on prevention, symptoms, risk factors, and lifestyle interventions. Expert authorship is key.

“Combining the content of the videos and information given by physicians could improve the outcome of healthcare,” the authors wrote.

"Physicians could emphasize that patients need to be aware when searching medical information from the YouTube platform."

Hawryluk, et al.

The authors of the study published in MIS Quarterly found that although patients tend to avoid videos with low or no amounts of medical information, they struggled to keep attention with videos that contained more medical information.

This finding could be due to lower levels of health literacy and being intimidated by the information that's communicated or the medical terms that are used.

“As health care organizations and others produce educational materials for patients, they should think not only about what medical information to deliver but also how to meet the interest, information needs and health literacy levels of the consumers,” said Rema Padman, PhD, one of the authors, in a press release.[]

"Creators of these materials should use technology and online solutions to reach patients with complex chronic conditions with personalized, contextualized, and just-in-time content."

Rema Padman, PhD

What this means for you

As a physician, it’s important to appreciate that many of your patients will inevitably turn to YouTube for medical information. It may be a good idea to help them understand which videos are of high quality and can complement the care and advice that you provide. Keep in mind that verification of the content is key: good videos are produced by reputable authors.

Read Next: When your patient asked Dr. Google: How to work with an internet ‘expert’
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