Time to visit your TikTok doc? The good and bad of doctors on social media
Rakhi Patel has carved a hobby out of reviewing pizza — her favorite food — on Instagram. In a nod to her preferred topping, she calls herself thepepperoniqueen. Photos and videos show her savoring slices from scores of pizzerias. In some of them, she’s wearing scrubs — her attire as an inpatient neurology physician associate at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
“Depending on how you dress your pizza, it can be more nutritious,” said Patel, who suggests a thin crust, sugarless tomato sauce and vegetables galore as healthier alternatives. “There are no boundaries for a health care professional to enjoy pizza.”
Beyond that, “pizza fuels my mental health and makes me happy, especially when loaded with pepperoni,” she said. “If I’m going to be a pizza connoisseur, then I also need to take care of my physical health by ensuring that I get at least three days of exercise per week and eat nutritiously when I’m not eating pizza.”
She’s among an increasing number of health care professionals, including doctors and nurses, who maintain an active persona on social media, according to bioethics researchers. They share their hobbies and interests with people inside and outside the world of medicine, helping patients and the public become acquainted with the humans behind the scrubs or white coats. Other health care experts limit their posts to medical topics, while some opt for a combination of personal and professional commentaries. Depending on the posts, ethical issues may come into play.
“Health care professionals are quite prevalent on social media,” said Mercer Gary, a postdoctoral researcher at The Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute in Garrison, New York. “They’ve been posting on #medTwitter for many years, mainly to communicate with one another, but, of course, anyone can see the threads. Most recently, doctors and nurses have become a presence on TikTok.”
On social media, many health care providers perceive themselves to be “humanizing” their profession by coming across as more approachable — “reminding patients that providers are people and workers, as well as repositories of medical expertise,” Gary said. As a result, she noted that patients who are often intimidated by clinicians may feel comfortable enough to overcome barriers to scheduling health care appointments. The use of TikTok in particular may help doctors and nurses connect with younger followers.
When health care providers post on social media, they must bear in mind that they have legal and ethical duties to their patients, profession and society, said Elizabeth Levy, founder and director of Physicians for Justice.
While enduring three years of pandemic conditions, many health care professionals have struggled with burnout, exhaustion and moral distress. “Much health care provider content on social media seeks to expose the difficulties of the work,” Gary added. “TikTok and Instagram reels have shown health care providers crying after losing a patient or exhausted after a night shift in the emergency department.”
A study conducted in Beijing, China and published last year found that TikTok is the world’s most rapidly growing video application, amassing 1.6 billion users in 2021. “More and more patients are searching for information on genitourinary cancers via TikTok,” the study’s authors wrote in Frontiers in Oncology, referring to cancers of the urinary tracts and male reproductive organs. Among the 61 sample videos examined by the researchers, health care practitioners contributed the content in 29, or 47 percent, of them. Yet, 22 posts, 36 percent, were misinformative, mostly due to outdated information.
More than half of the videos offered good content on disease symptoms and examinations. The authors concluded that “most videos on genitourinary cancers on TikTok are of poor to medium quality and reliability. However, videos posted by media agencies enjoyed great public attention and interaction. Medical practitioners could improve the video quality by cooperating with media agencies and avoiding unexplained terminologies.”
When health care providers post on social media, they must bear in mind that they have legal and ethical duties to their patients, profession and society, said Elizabeth Levy, founder and director of Physicians for Justice in Irvine, Calif., a nonprofit network of volunteer physicians partnering with public interest lawyers to address the social determinants of health.
“Providers are also responsible for understanding the mechanics of their posts,” such as who can see these messages and how long they stay up, Levy said. As a starting point for figuring what’s acceptable, providers could look at social media guidelines put out by their professional associations. Even beyond that, though, they must exercise prudent judgment. “As social media continues to evolve, providers will also need to stay updated with the changing risks and benefits of participation.”
Patients often research their providers online, so finding them on social media can help inform about values and approaches to care, said M. Sara Rosenthal, a professor and founding director of the program for bioethics and chair of the hospital ethics committee at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.
Health care providers’ posts on social media also could promote patient education. They can advance informed consent and help patients navigate the risks and benefits of various treatments or preventive options. However, providers could violate ethical principles if they espouse “harmful, risky or questionable therapies or medical advice that is contrary to clinical practice guidelines or accepted standards of care,” Rosenthal said.
Inappropriate self-disclosure also can affect a provider’s reputation, said Kelly Michelson, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. A clinician’s obligations to professionalism extend beyond those moments when they are directly taking care of their patients, she said. “Many experts recommend against clinicians ‘friending’ patients or the families on social media because it blurs the patient-clinician boundary.”
Meanwhile, clinicians need to adhere closely to confidentiality. In sharing a patient’s case online for educational purposes, safeguarding identity becomes paramount. Removing names and changing minor details is insufficient, Michelson said.
“The patient-clinician relationship is sacred, and it can only be effective if patients have 100 percent confidence that all that happens with their clinician is kept in the strictest of confidence,” she said, adding that health care providers also should avoid obtaining information about their patients from social media because it can lead to bias and risk jeopardizing objectivity.
Academic clinicians can use social media as a recruitment tool to expand the pool of research participants for their studies, Michelson said. Because the majority of clinical research is conducted at academic medical centers, large segments of the population are excluded. “This affects the quality of the data and knowledge we gain from research,” she said.
Don S. Dizon, a professor of medicine and surgery at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, uses LinkedIn and Doximity, as well as Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and most recently, YouTube and Post. He’s on Twitter nearly every day, where he interacts with the oncology community and his medical colleagues.
Also, he said, “I really like Instagram. It’s where you will see a hybrid of who I am professionally and personally. I’ve become comfortable sharing both up to a limit, but where else can I combine my appreciation of clothes with my professional life?” On that site, he’s seen sporting shirts with polka dots or stripes and an occasional bow-tie. He also posts photos of his cats.
Don S. Dizon, a professor of medicine and surgery at Brown, started using TikTok several years ago, telling medical stories in short-form videos.
Don S. Dizon
Dizon started using TikTok several years ago, telling medical stories in short-form videos. He may talk about an inspirational patient, his views on end-of-life care and death, or memories of people who have passed. But he is careful not to divulge any details that would identify anyone.
Recently, some people have become his patients after viewing his content on social media or on the Internet in general, which he clearly states isn’t a forum for medical advice. “In both situations, they are so much more relaxed when we meet, because it’s as if they have a sense of who I am as a person,” Dizon said. “I think that has helped so much in talking through a cancer diagnosis and a treatment plan, and yes, even discussions about prognosis.”
He also posts about equity and diversity. “I have found myself more likely to repost or react to issues that are inherently political, including racism, homophobia, transphobia and lack-of-access issues, because medicine is not isolated from society, and I truly believe that medicine is a social justice issue,” said Dizon, who is vice chair of diversity, equity, inclusion and professional integrity at the SWOG Cancer Research Network.
Through it all, Dizon likes “to break through the notion of doctor as infallible and all-knowing, the doctor as deity,” he said. “Humanizing what I do, especially in oncology, is something that challenges me on social media, and I appreciate the opportunities to do it on TikTok.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.