TikTok’s Medical Professionals Maybe Aren’t All That Professional

Doctors and nurses have always let off steam privately — but what happens when you do it to 1.5 billion people?

Amelia Tait
Jan 24, 2020 · 8 min read
Image: Owen Beard/Unsplash

On the evening of 3 January, 27-year-old receptionist Hannah Nicks began experiencing a tightness in her chest and pain in her left arm. She describes feeling as though her “rib cage was shrinking”, leaving her unable to breathe. The North Carolinian was afraid and considered going to her local hospital to get checked out, but decided against it when she recalled a TikTok she’d seen days earlier.

In the video, a University of Antigua medical student mocked patients for coming into hospital with chest pain. Over the course of 19 seconds, student Mursal Sekandari rolled her eyes at a pretend patient, joked that the patient was on drugs, and patronized them for assuming they were having a heart attack.

“It made me not wanna go to the hospital because what if I go in there, tell them what I think is happening, and they just laugh in my face?” Nicks says now. “Nobody wants to be ridiculed for something that they think they’re experiencing.”

Thankfully Nicks didn’t need immediate medical attention — she has suffered from anxiety for 14 years and after the pain passed, realized the incident was an unusually severe panic attack. Yet her experiences in early January are symptomatic of a wider phenomenon: over the last few months, multiple medical professionals have gone viral after creating inappropriate TikToks, eroding public trust in the healthcare system.

Before Mursal Sekandari, it was Ruby Ray, Tapasi Biswas, Swapna Bala and Nandini Ray. In June 2019, the four nurses from Malkangiri, India were asked to go on leave after filming themselves dancing in a special neonatal care unit. Five months later, on 19 November, the hashtag #PatientsAreNotFaking began trending on Twitter after an apparent nurse, Danyelle Rose, shared a TikTok in which she pretended to be a hyperventilating patient dressed in a medical gown under the caption, “We know when y’all are faking”. After the incident with Mursal Sekandari in late December, a TikTok user known as “Nurse Holly” then went viral on 10 January for recommending abstinence as the “best” way to prevent STDs while wearing her uniform.

Between these headline-generating cases, there are countless other examples of inappropriate medical TikToks. On 16 January, a TikTok from a medical professional identified only as Hailey was lambasted on Twitter. In the video, “Hailey” pretends to be a series of ER patients, including a “manic patient” and a “screaming mother” who has just lost her baby. A week earlier, a woman in scrubs was criticized for posting a TikTok in which doubts a patient’s drug allergies.

At the time of writing, the “nurse”, “nurselife”, “doctor” and “doctorlife” tags on TikTok are full of similar videos, often filmed in clinical settings and with medical equipment used as props. In one recent video, the lyric “Ok, I believe you!” from Harry Belafonte’s calypso song ‘Jump in the Line’ is mimed by a nurse who roleplays dismissing patients’ medical claims. In another, an NHS nurse in uniform recounts removing items from a patient’s “butt”. In a video riffing off Danyelle Rose’s, a medical professional swings an oxygen tank and a stethoscope in a hospital room. In still more videos, staff can be seen playing around with hospital beds, joking about miscarriages, and mocking patients for their sexual history.

“We turn to people in the medical profession to help us and it’s scary to think people in this profession aren’t taking patients seriously,” says Nicks. It is worth noting that sometimes people who aren’t licensed medical professionals also dress up in scrubs for TikTok, further entrenching distrust (the BBC appears to have fallen for one of these accounts, which joked about stool samples, in mid-January).

What — if anything — is being done about this epidemic? Nurse Holly has apologized for her actions, but it is unclear if she has been reprimanded by the establishment where she works. “My intent was not to create controversy and of course never to shame anyone,” Holly said over email when asked for comment. When asked if she plans to return to TikTok, Holly said it is rewarding to hear from children she has inspired to pursue nursing. “I want nothing more than to have a positive impact on people’s lives,” she said, explaining that she plans to return to social media “at some point” but isn’t sure if she will post nursing content.

Sekandari did not respond to a request for comment, but she set her social media accounts private after going viral. A spokesperson for the American Nurses Association declined to comment on whether its social media guidelines will be updated as a result of the recent scandals, as did the Nursing and Midwifery Council in the UK. Both organisations sent links to their social media guidelines — neither set of guidelines mentions TikTok, while the NMC’s guidelines refer to “video” just once and the ANA’s doesn’t mention it at all.

TikTok declined to provide a comment for this story, but the site updated its community guidelines on January 8th. The new guidelines ban sharing misinformation, including, “misinformation that may cause harm to an individual’s health, such as misleading information about medical treatments”. The site encourages users to report any content that violates its policies; guilty users will have their content or accounts removed.

While there is medical misinformation on TikTok, none of the recently lambasted viral videos violate the site’s guidelines. With little action from TikTok or medical associations, change may come from educators. Sarah Mojarad is a lecturer in medical education at the University of California, where she co-created a course on social media for scientists and medical students. She teaches online professionalism and educates students on the best ways to use social media without violating public trust in the medical profession.

“It has me very concerned,” says Mojarad of the recent TikTok scandals. The lecturer believes medical professionals can use TikTok to humanize themselves and educate the public in a way that resonates with a younger audience, but says recent “bad behavior” is “definitely jeopardizing the public trust in medicine”.

At present, Mojarad believes social media education isn’t up to scratch across America. “I see one-off lectures taking place and I believe because these issues are so nuanced and the spaces are evolving so quickly, there need to be multiple touchpoints throughout the academic year. But [due to already packed schedules] finding a place in the curriculum is going to be very difficult.”

Tricia Rae Pendergrast, a 26-year-old medical student from Chicago, says she received between 15-20 minutes social media training during her medical school orientation. She doesn’t blame institutions for being unable to keep up with social media developments, but says further guidelines are needed to ensure all medical professionals behave ethically.

“Being wary of medical professionals based on these videos is a completely rational response,” says Pendergrast, who fears inappropriate TikToks are tarnishing her profession and endangering patients. “Maybe someone is on the cusp of considering whether or not to vaccinate their child, a video like this could push them over the edge… The stakes are about as high as they can get.”

Like Mojarad, Pendergrast believes TikTok hosts some “wonderful” medical videos but says “many” of those that trend are unprofessional. “I don’t want to see anyone dancing around in the OR [operating room] to Lil Nas X. That is a place of healing… It kind of twists my stomach that someone can be doing the ‘renegades’ dance in OR 1 but someone is dying in OR 2.” While no videos have come to light where surgeons dance while a patient is in the room, the “surgeon” tag on TikTok is full of apparent surgeons dancing in operating theatres while wearing scrubs.

Pendergrast’s fears are far from unfounded and anxiety sufferer Nicks is far from the only patient who has been troubled by TikToks. Yoon Sung is a 19-year-old student from Boston who has experienced a fear of medical professionals from a young age. After being hospitalized for anorexia nervosa in their early teens, Sung began to distrust doctors, who were dismissive and repeated statements Sung made in confidence to their parents. Sung only regained a trust in doctors last year, when they turned 18 and found a trustworthy doctor and therapist — but they say recent TikToks have set their progress back.

“I’m definitely angry, and it definitely makes me anxious,” Sung says of their reaction to Nurse Holly and Danyelle Rose’s TikToks. “I’m anxious if I go for a check-up that it will just be regarded as nonsense or I won’t be taken seriously. I need to be able to trust the people who take care of me.” Sung says the TikToks have made them more likely to “ignore” any future issues “rather than go get it checked out”.

“I don’t want to pay money for a visit that may not even result in helping me,” they say. “I’m frustrated because I spent a lot of my life too scared to go to a doctor or a therapist, and that resulted in me losing some of the best years of my life. It makes me really frustrated that in the future if something happens to me, it’ll make it harder for me to find someone I’ll be comfortable with telling information to.”

Inappropriate TikToks seem to have especially resonated with patients who seek help for mental health issues. In the summer of 2019, “stories from the psych ward” became a popular trend on the social network — in them, apparent medical professionals recount tales of mentally ill patients. A 31-year-old who has asked to be identified as Megan says that watching videos like this makes her “furious”. Megan has bipolar II disorder as well as functional neurological disorder and psychogenic seizures. She was institutionalized as a child and has been in a psych ward twice since.

“Honestly, I know that a lot of medical professionals literally don’t care about their patients or think we’re a freaking joke and this specific TikTok video solidified that fact,” Megan says of a video she saw in which a nurse pretended to be a screaming psych patient. “I think it’s extremely inappropriate for medical professionals to make videos making a mockery of their patients. The medical field as a whole probably should have some rules in place for that sort of thing because I think it starts to break a moral code at that point, doesn’t it?”

While existing hospital, school, and association guidelines tell medical professionals to behave respectfully on social media and not jeopardise patient confidentially or create inappropriate posts, the lack of TikTok-specific guidance may cause further problems in the future. “It’s not something that people can just turn a blind eye to now,” says academic Mojarad. “It needs to be taken seriously.” As of yet, it is unclear if any steps are being taken on a national or international scale.

“It makes me really wary about going to a facility,” says Nicks of her experiences. “TikTok is designed for people to have fun and joke around and everything, but it’s kind of scary when medical professionals are doing it.”

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