Dr. Rose Marie Leslie is hoping to reach teens with a message about the dangers of e-cigarettes. So she’s started posting regularly on TikTok, the popular short video app, and has collected a large following.
Leslie, who goes by @DrLeslie and is a family medicine doctor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, has amassed more than 300,000 followers on the platform in recent months. Most of her TikTok videos offer insights on health issues that impact teens, ranging from how to talk to doctors about birth control to why it’s a bad idea for a group of friends to share a lollipop.
She’s best known for getting real about vaping and vaping-related illness. The issue is more urgent than ever for many parents, with surveys showing that vape use at an all-time high among teens amid an outbreak of a life-threatening vaping illness. Part of the problem, according to medical experts, is the teens aren’t aware of the risks because public health organizations aren’t communicating with them on the platforms they use.
That’s where Leslie comes in.
In one video, she shows her followers what vaping lung illness really looks like under a microscope. “That is terrifying,” she says on the video.
Leslie doesn’t talk down to the viewer, but instead shows side-by-side images of a vaping-related lung injury and a normal lung biopsy, and discusses the root causes. The video has more than 60 comments, including one from a female TikTokker who says they’re “crying” because “they vape all day everyday” and they’re struggling to quit but realize they need to. Another user notes, “I quit smoking because of you.”
In other videos, Leslie lays out the latest findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including how Vitamin E acetate is a culprit for the mysterious lung disease. And that ingredient is linked to an oil commonly found in lotions and vitamin supplements, which is increasingly found in illegal THC vaping products.
Leslie says she gets a lot of messages from teens who have stopped vaping because they watched one of her videos. But she knows she isn’t reaching everyone. One common criticism she hears is that she’s just a “Karen,” which is a term used by Gen Z to describe middle-age mom figures who act entitled and privileged.
“I expected it as a primary-care doctor who’s often talking to teens about the health risks associated with something like vaping that’s perceived as cool,” she said.
Greater engagement on TikTok than other platforms
Leslie is just one of the doctors who have recently started popping up on TikTok. Far more physicians are on Twitter and Instagram, which are more popular with older generations. But those who have taken the TikToK plunge say they are experiencing far greater engagement on content there than on other social media platforms.
Jefferson Health’s Dr. Austin Chiang, one of the most active physicians on social media, recently joined TikTok after reading about how it’s taking off. He’s also got a presence on Twitter, Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram and is one of the first physicians in the country to hold the title of “chief medical social media officer.”
Chiang uses TikTok primarily as a platform to talk to other young doctors about issues that matter to them, like the cost of medical education or the sacrifice of giving up their 20s to spend nights and weekends in the hospital. Chiang says he already sees the most engagement on TikTok, which is used by more than 700 million people daily, according to its owner ByteDance.
Chiang and Leslie are also using TikTok to combat health misinformation.
Leslie, in a recent video, noted that celery juice won’t cure cancer, despite the recent fad perpetuated by so-called wellness influencers who claim to have helped tens of thousands of people with misdiagnosed ailments.
“I may not be the perfect health guru on social media,” said Leslie, who sports rose glasses and scrubs. “I don’t meditate or do yoga, I rarely get enough sleep, I’m not vegan and I don’t post inspirational quotes. But let me tell you, I have never and will never try to convince you that drinking celery juice cures cancer.”
Likewise, Chiang got thousands of views for a video about how vaccines work. He says physicians, nurses and dentists aren’t doing enough to combat health misinformation, while influencers like Medical Medium are extremely effective at marketing. And that needs to change, Chiang says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, nurses recognized the potential of TikTok far earlier than physicians. There are thousands of videos featuring nurses having fun during slower moments on a shift. Common tropes include a nurse pretending to be a patient running away from another nurse holding an injection, or guzzling down coffee on night shifts, or breaking out dance moves during a lunch break.
Many of these videos also encourage teen users to consider a job in health care and will sometimes even feature information about typical salaries and the type of training they need.
Public health experts say the trend of medical professionals talking to teens and young adults is a positive one overall.
“I’ve heard the criticism that doctors and other medical professionals on social media are somehow less credible, or won’t be taken as seriously by their peers,” said Sherry Pagoto, a behavioral scientist and professor at the Department of Allied Health Sciences at the University of Connecticut. “But I think that school of thought is going to be a thing of the past.”
Pagoto notes that medical experts need to meet teens where they are, rather than sticking to the older methods of advertising on television or Facebook.
“It would be great for public health organization to follow the lead of these medical professionals on TikTok,” she said.