May 23, 2024
Walking the TikTok Tightrope: Social Media Use by Healthcare Professionals

The following is a guest article by Alexandra V. Aglieco, APRN, FNP-BC

What compels established, well-respected healthcare professionals to post insensitive, ridiculing content on social media with no regard for the patient or family? Do they see a unique opportunity for exponential TikTok views, and subsequently disregarded professional standards?

Social media has successfully infiltrated nearly every industry, and healthcare is no exception. New forms of social media, such as TikTok, have opened the floodgates to an entirely new manner of healthcare professional conduct online, with an attitude that is much more open to sharing with the masses. “NurseTok” is a specific category of videos on the app; a preexisting niche providing a way for nurses and other healthcare professionals to provide tailored content to an already invested audience.

These online platforms can undoubtedly be catalysts for quality improvement in the healthcare field. The accessibility and universality of social media provides a unique opportunity to reach a broad audience. It eliminates geographical boundaries and allows for the provision of education to those who would otherwise not have access. An online space to spread awareness and impart important medical knowledge to the masses is upon us. That is, if it is used properly.

TikTok specifically has created a new subculture of putting everything online, even what may be considered undignified in real life. The format of the app shows users the video view count, something unique from previous platforms. This stimulates our natural competitive instincts as humans and creates a motivation to get the maximum number of people watching, often at any cost. Users often push the boundaries of what would be acceptable in real life, posting content with the goal of paramount shock value. The return is a hit of dopamine caused by exponential views, likes, and comments. It gives the user the illusion of fame and notoriety. But what happens when healthcare professionals fall victim to this?

There have been several cases of healthcare staff crossing into the dark side of social media, completely abandoning their professional standards online. In late 2023, an Atlanta pathologist posted photos of a baby boy who was unintentionally decapitated during delivery within hours of his death. A group of labor and delivery nurses were fired from their organization in late 2022 after posting a TikTok about specific patients they found “annoying.” In early 2023, nurses at a Tennessee hospital were also fired for a TikTok mocking a pediatric patient with a gunshot wound who cried during a blood draw. Sadly, these are just a few of copious examples where healthcare professionals are more concerned with their view counts than their responsibility to protect and care for their patients.

This combination of healthcare content and the set of antithetical virtual social norms creates a major risk for HIPAA violations, safety concerns, and even humiliation of patients to captivate the viewer. As healthcare professionals, we see things that would shock the average person on a daily basis, and we become blind to it. Displaying it to the masses, while attracting the desired views online, would be shielded from the public eye in the real world. This type of content is displayed proudly on TikTok. As healthcare professionals utilizing the app, we walk a fine line between creating interesting content while upholding our professional values.

As we navigate this new healthcare landscape, we need to accept the inevitable rise of social media in the profession. It’s not going away. We must highlight the risks of putting any information relating to practice on social media, and bring more awareness to the impacts of TikTok use by healthcare professionals. In turn, we can capitalize on the use of social media to improve what we do. If used properly, we can utilize TikTok and other online platforms as an opportunity to educate and inform, defying distance barriers. But we have to do it correctly.

Walking the TikTok Tightrope: Social Media Use by Healthcare ProfessionalsWalking the TikTok Tightrope: Social Media Use by Healthcare ProfessionalsAbout Alexandra V. Aglieco

Alexandra is a certified family nurse practitioner specializing in primary care, infectious disease, and addiction medicine. She has six years of nursing experience and is a current doctor of nursing practice student and graduate teaching assistant at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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