How much health information on social media is safe to consume?


Because social media is free and accessible, everyone’s putting out tips and knowledge on virtually everything. Including your grandma (WhatsApp, duhh). In the same way, information in specialised fields like medicine and healthcare have now been made available, and medical practitioners have tapped into the social media health tips grapevine.

People are actively discussing health issues on social media, whether it’s endometriosis or a migraine, and Nigerian Twitter especially has valorised  healthcare professionals into the internet’s hall of fame. Last year, I listened to a radio show wherein Dr. Ola Brown (@NaijaFlyingDr on Twitter) enlightened listeners on breast cancer. “All the information you need is on my pinned tweet,” she said.

Dr. Brown is the founder of Flying Doctors Nigeria, a social enterprise providing air ambulance services to health institutions in West Africa. Her Twitter feed can be a seemingly innocuous tableau of medical information; yesterday, it was about kidney stones. She has inadvertently spawned a whole sub-genre of influencer, the ‘Healthertainer’, a social media influencer who uses humour and their medical knowledge as a way to grow social media audiences. “I shake health tables for a living,” reads the Twitter bio of Dr. Nonso aka Aproko Doctor, who was recently asked about his medical opinion on anal sex by a woman.

But methodology in disseminating health information differs. Dr. Harvey Olufunmilayo, for example, is known for debunking myths and creating meme-inserted Twitter threads. His latest myth-busting attempt was on blue balls, which got a humour-tinged disapproval from men in the context of flouting the “bro code.”

Medical Twitter, as some call it, has given rise to friendly online relationships between doctors and a hermetically flourishing community. As someone who reads these health tips every day, or come across them in my social media feed, it amazes me how it’s all so beguilingly consumed. It bothers me that anyone can claim they are a trained doctor and propagate dangerous falsehoods. It bothers me, also, that a trained doctor can still propagate or reinforce old-fashioned or out-of-date health practices.

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There are three reasons why this new trend of ‘Healthertainers’ is worrying. First, Nigeria is already a country where very few people would go see a doctor at the first sign of illness or distress, public hospitals in Nigeria are horrifying places, many of them have gained the unfair reputation of being death traps. As such social media health influencers circumvent the very important physical examination that is necessary to properly diagnose illness and give diagnoses based on hearsay, which can be dangerous for patients with real illnesses. Second, the ultimate objective of the ‘healthertainer’ is endorsements, either from Non-profit organizations or pharmaceutical companies. There are no ethics or rules that forces these social media doctors to disclose when they are praising a drug or giving a diagnosis that is sponsored by a brand, they could very easily mislead gullible followers who trust their motives are altruistic. Finally, a good number of these ‘Healthertainers’ routinely break doctor-patient confidentiality by telling real stories about patient consultations in their bid to come across as relatable. This is unfair to the patient and in more civilized countries would cost the doctor in question their license.

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Social media is bursting with information, and sometimes a little Google consultation can help in separating facts from inaccuracies. WhatsApp, notoriously, is the conduit for all kinds of health-related fake news. Facebook, too. We can’t stop the expanding morass of health information dumped on social media platforms, but we can at least apply a dose of harmless skepticism.

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