Women turn to TikTok for health information and OBGYNs are there to meet them

Anatoliy Sizov/iStock(NEW YORK) — When Dr. Danielle Jones, a board-certified OBGYN, wants to talk about a women’s health issue, all she has to do is log onto TikTok and her message is heard.

One recent video of Jones talking about period pain on the short-form, video-sharing app garnered more than 480,000 likes and nearly 4,000 comments.

In another video with more than 100,000 likes, Jones takes on critics of using TikTok to teach sexual education while also dropping a fact about sex ed, all in 15 seconds, the length of videos on TikTok.

“I don’t think social media replaces talking to your physician, but at the same time it’s disillusioned to think that people aren’t going to go online for health information,” Jones, 33, of College Station, Texas, told ABC News’ Good Morning America. “Rather than ignore it, we need to be there and provide them with credible information.”

Jones, a mother of four, is considered a pioneer in the current trend of doctors, particularly OBGYNs, developing social media brands to share medical information. She joined Twitter and started blogging as a health care professional in 2009, when she was still in medical school.

Jones said she initially used social media as a way to listen to patients’ stories. She started sharing women’s health information when she heard from women with questions and doubts about their own health.

“More and more we’re seeing that people go to [their doctor] to talk about women’s health or gynecology problems and that they’re ignored or no one is listening to them,” she said. “It’s not popular to say that, but people are telling us that they’re not being heard and we have to listen to that.”

On TikTok, which Jones joined in October, her most popular videos focus on sexual health topics, like what to do if your condom breaks and how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases — topics of interest to TikTok’s younger demographic.

Teens and young adults typically use the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform as a tool for sharing short viral clips, music videos and more.

The app has more than 110 million downloads in the U.S. and has recently come under scrutiny in Washington, D.C., as a potential “national security risk.”

Women’s health doctors on TikTok say they have faced criticism — primarily that it’s dangerous to share medical information online and that their information is reaching young kids. Most, including Jones, say the “positive benefits” of using the app and being on social media in general far outweigh the negative.

“It’s super important to meet people where they are and give them the tools they need to have that discussion with their doctor,” said Jones. “I can’t foresee a future in my lifetime where there’s not heavy use of social media by everybody, which means that is where people are going to get information.”

Dr. Natalie Crawford, also a board-certified OBGYN in Texas, said her fast growth on TikTok shows the demand is there. She joined the app in December and quickly gained more than 53,000 followers.

The video that she says put her on the TikTok map was about painful periods, a video that garnered 5,500 comments.

“The comments are riddled with things like, ‘I didn’t know this,’ and, ‘No one is listening to me,'” Crawford told GMA. “I think periods for a long time have been something people just don’t want to talk about and when you see a community of women all wanting to talk about the same thing you then feel empowered to ask questions.”

Both Crawford and Jones also use Instagram, YouTube, podcasts and their own websites as ways to delve deeper into the topics they touch on in TikTok.

“I want people to have access to information for a long time,” said Crawford, a fertility specialist. “I hear from women that they walked into their doctor’s office more informed and able to ask better questions and I hear from doctors too whose patients come in asking informed questions and get more out of the appointment.”

Why women’s health doctors are hits on TikTok

The hashtag #obgyn has more than 33 million views on TikTok alone.

Other types of doctors are using the platform to reach new audiences as well, but OBGYNs seem to have struck a chord online because women’s health issues — from periods to painful sex to birth control and miscarriage — have not historically always been well-taught or openly discussed.

“I remember one girl in Alabama saying my TikToks are more informative than anything she’s gotten in high school,” said Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, a Portland, Oregon-based OBGYN who joined TikTok last year. “Others say they felt comfortable talking to their moms about scheduling a gynecologist appointment now or were now comfortable going to see a doctor.”

TikTok commended the creativity of doctors on the platform.

“Whether sharing fertility tips over a chart-topping track or giving a glimpse into the daily life of an OB-GYN, healthcare professionals have blended humor, medical expertise, and relatable experiences to educate at scale and make #DoctorLife more accessible,” Gregory Justice, head of content opportunity at TikTok, said in a statement to GMA.

In the United States, 27 states and the District of Columbia mandate both sex education and HIV education be taught in schools, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based reproductive rights research group.

The anonymity of social media and the short bursts of information that TikTok allows open up the types of conversations that young women and teen girls are not having with their parents or their doctors, according to Lincoln.

“I would love to be put out of a job because kids say they don’t need this, that they can get the information from their parents, from school and that they’re not ashamed to talk about these things,” she said. “I would love to be useless, but until then, as we continue to fail our kids, then yes, it’s something I will continue to do.”

Make sure you get the right information

Making one 15-second TikTok video can take Lincoln up to two hours because of the time and focus she says she puts into making sure the information she’s sharing is factual and based on credible, evidence-based research.

She and the other two doctors GMA spoke with, Crawford and Jones, all stressed how much importance they place on providing their followers with more resources and links to the research they are sharing. They also said they prominently display their credentials and don’t go on the defense if someone questions their work.

“We’re under a microscope and appropriately so,” said Lincoln. “I tell people to not take my word for it, look me up … and if people ask for further information, I’ll direct them to further studies.”

A doctor on social media who is not willing to share their credentials, doesn’t cite research or isn’t willing to direct people to more resources is a red flag, according to Vanessa Barnabei, MD, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.

“My advice to my own patients over the years, and this applies online, is to get a second opinion, look for a second source and try to validate that,” Barnabei told GMA. “Women should always do their own research, or at least research the person they’re reading and ask questions like, ‘What is their background? Are they board-certified?'”

And for the same reason that OBGYNs are popular on social media app like TikTok — it’s a safe space to discuss sometimes stigmatized issues — women can also be targeted negatively online, said Tamar L. Gur, MD, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Ohio State University College of Medicine.

“I think vulnerable populations are the most at risk, like if you’ve had a miscarriage and you’re not talking to anybody about it and you see someone post on Instagram about a vitamin that will reduce the risk of miscarriage,” she said. “Because there is so much stigma attached to things like miscarriage and anxiety and women are in some cases more susceptible.”

Both Barnabei and Gur stress that women seeking medical information from doctors and influencers on social media should check that the person is not profiting in any way from the information they’re sharing.

“Google them and see if they work at a reputable medical center, see if they’re trying to sell a book or trying to sell a product,” she said. “Compare what they’re saying to what you’ve learned in biology class and books.”

“The TikTok videos that I’ve seen are trying to provide information and I think that can be very empowering, but just like on any social media it will be a place to spread misinformation,” said Gur.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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