Nov. 4, 2022 – What good is health information on popular social media platforms like TikTok if it’s misleading?

Most of the popular videos about irritable bowel syndrome using the #IBS hashtag on TikTok are posted by influencers or the public rather than by medical professionals or health establishments, according to research presented at the American College of Gastroenterology 2022 Annual Scientific Meeting in Charlotte, NC. While influencers’ posts were shared more often, content from medical professionals had higher views.

“These findings support the partnership of healthcare organizations and professionals with influencers to increase health information sharing and dissemination of factual educational content,” Faraz Jafri, of the University of Texas’s Dell Medical School in Austin, said at the meeting. 

Posts with the hashtag #IBS have already pulled in 1.6 billion views, he points out, and many of these are aimed at helping people deal with having IBS.

“With the onset of COVID-19, social media platforms like TikTok became an important outlet for patients to share their experience with IBS because they were not willing to visit their doctor,” Jafri says. “While IBS is often an embarrassing topic for patients, TikTok has played an important role in normalizing IBS by providing an online support community where patients can go and share their story.” 

Online Support

Jafri and his team analyzed the accuracy and educational content of the first 100 videos that appeared on TikTok under the hashtag #IBS that met the inclusion criteria for their study. They found that nearly half the videos – 42 total – were posted by influencers, while medical professionals shared 10 videos and medical establishments posted another six videos. The remaining videos were shared by the general public.

Videos posted by influencers had an average 16,382 shares, compared to 10,869 shares of videos posted by medical professionals. But the videos from medical professionals had more views (3,661,000) than those posted by influencers (2,926,476).

Only 30% of the videos were educational, and less than half of these (47%) were factual. And 1 in 5 of the videos (21%) posted by influencers were not based on gold-standard peer-reviewed research.

“These findings are not surprising because there is a lot of health misinformation on TikTok,” says Zachary Rubin, MD, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at Oak Brook Allergists in Illinois. “This is especially true when the health topics are not well understood even within the medical community.”

Misinformation

It’s important for people to be aware of trends online that can affect medical decision-making, Rubin says, so that potential misinformation can be addressed. (Rubin was not involved in the study, but is an active TikTok user who frequently posts educational videos about vaccines, respiratory illnesses, and allergies.)

“There are a lot of content creators who spread misinformation in order to encourage them to visit their personal website to sign up for classes or buy products, which may not necessarily be proven to help,” he explains. 

He says people should search for the credentials of TikTok creators they are following for health-related information. Things to consider include whether the creator has a professional degree, what the creator’s personal website offers, and whether the creator is trying to sell a product or service.

“Although TikTok may have valuable information regarding IBS and its treatment, it is important to be aware of misinformation and consult your physician when deciding to start a new diet or medicine,” Jafri says. “Patients can use TikTok to find helpful ‘tips and tricks’ provided by licensed medical professionals that can improve lifestyle and provide symptom relief.”

Nearly all of the non-educational videos (97%) were posted by non-medical professionals, the researchers found. Most of the posts were classified as lifestyle (43%) or tips and tricks (40%), with just over a third (35%) classified as humor and 7% classified as marketing.

“Users were most interested in posts that discussed lifestyle changes that could alleviate symptoms of IBS, such as massage, diet, positioning, and clothing,” Jafri says. “This DIY approach to IBS has taken off on TikTok with posts regarding diet, lifestyle, medicine, and product advertisement.”

Rubin says that TikTok’s popularity as a platform means it’s important for health professionals to join and post accurate health information – especially on popular topics like skin care and weight loss.

“The vast majority of adults search for health information online, and many adults want to see their physicians on social media,” Rubin says. “It can be a good source for up-to-date information for people. For clinicians, it can provide an opportunity to connect with their patients and with the media.”

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