Home Science & Tech A TikTok Doctor Talks Coronavirus Vaccines

A TikTok Doctor Talks Coronavirus Vaccines

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Health information needs to reach people where they are — and people are on social media.

That’s one message from Dr. Austin Chiang, a 35-year-old gastroenterologist and the chief medical social media officer at Jefferson Health, a hospital system based in Philadelphia. On TikTok, Dr. Chiang makes engaging and informative short videos about coronavirus infection rates, parasites in sushi, colon cancer symptoms and screenings, and more. Seriously, he makes learning about acid reflux fun.

The start on Monday of the United States’ mass vaccination campaign against the coronavirus puts health professionals in a position to communicate widely about vaccines to a sometimes skeptical public. Dr. Chiang told me that when he and other health professionals talk about vaccinations and other health information, it’s essential to be upfront with people about what they don’t know.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Shira: Why do you make TikTok videos?

Dr. Chiang: Part of what I’m trying to do is humanize our profession. I try to showcase being fun but also professional, and hopefully people can learn something.

As doctors, we don’t get any marketing or communications training, and yet we’re expected to contribute to our community and to public health. We have to meet patients where they are, and communicate information in interesting and digestible ways. One of the things that I’m passionate about outside of my clinical work is encouraging more of my colleagues to use social media.

What are some of your videos that have had a big impact?

One that I really liked used a song lyric about walking around a neighborhood to talk about how physical activity is sometimes a luxury. I made another video that said off the bat, “You’re probably seeing this because you’re constipated,” to acknowledge that constipation is a serious problem that many people experience.

How Taiwan Beat Covid” was a message I wanted to get across because I grew up there for part of my life. I wanted to show people that a country was able to tame the virus, but the same approaches might not work here.

How might you approach coronavirus vaccines on TikTok?

It’s tricky. When we talk about vaccines as health professionals, people who are vehemently anti-vaccine can take it out of context for their agenda. That makes me hold back sometimes.

The approach that I try to take is to leave room for the gray. If you say vaccines don’t cause any harm and are the best things in the world, it can alienate people who are vaccine hesitant. If we instead acknowledge that there are risks just like anything else in medicine and life, it’s a more effective message.

For coronavirus vaccines, I would probably do something with a voice over that explains my own reasons for getting vaccinated, and lays out the side effects and the risk-benefit analysis I’ve done in my mind and what we gain from the vaccine.

I’m sure the coronavirus vaccines are confusing to everyone because they’re confusing to us, too.

How do you have time to make videos?

I’m careful to make sure this doesn’t interfere with patient care. I make videos in my own time. At Jefferson, they see the value of using social media to reach people, with caution of course. The Covid testing nurses at Jefferson — the Swab Squad — also have dance routines that they do on their break.

What other health care professionals should we follow?

On Instagram, The New England Journal of Medicine does a great job. Doctor Mike on YouTube, Dr. Cedric “Jamie” Rutland on Instagram and YouTube, Dr. Esther Choo on Twitter and Dr. Rose Marie Leslie and Dr. Jennifer Lincoln on TikTok are also great.

Tip of the Week

Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, discusses Apple’s new feature intended to better inform people what apps are doing with their information:

This week, people with iPhones will start to see something new when they are browsing the App Store: Each app’s description will now include a privacy label that is reminiscent of the nutrition labels on food packaging. (Apple first announced this in June.)

People who want to understand what apps are doing with their information mostly have to hunt on app makers’ websites for their often vague privacy policies. Apple says its labels were designed for people to scan quickly and have clearer information on what data the apps are collecting and for what purpose.

The labels present this information in three categories:

Data used to track you across different apps and websites. For example, your contact information could be used to identify that you’re the same person using another app where you use the same contact information.

Data linked to you: This is information tied to your identity, such as your purchase history or contact information.

Data not linked to you: This is information that is not directly tied to you or your account. For example, a mapping app might say it collects data from motion sensors to provide turn-by-turn directions, but it doesn’t save that information in your account or use that data to track what you do in other apps.

How should you use this new information? Before you download an app, take a glimpse at the privacy label. You might be surprised that an app is collecting data that has nothing to do with the service it provides, like a music app that constantly collects your location information.

If you don’t like what the company is doing with your data, then you can look for an alternative app with a data collection policy you’re more comfortable with.

The sweetest tale ever of a young girl, her fairy garden and a kind stranger who found comfort being a pen pal to her and her family. You might need tissues. (Thanks to my colleague Sheera Frenkel for sharing this.)

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