A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research and conducted by researchers from the University of Colorado and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill has revealed that big pharmaceutical companies (“Big Pharma”) are paying TikTok influencers to market their prescription drugs to young people.
The study interviewed 26 “patient influencers” across various disease categories who had varying levels of experience with pharmaceutical medications.
More than half (18/26, 69%) of the influencers “reported working with for-profit brands and pharmaceutical companies” in some way, the study says, including serving on advisory boards, speaking to physicians and researchers, or communicating with key audiences.
“Pharmaceutical companies collaborate with patient influencers for their specialized knowledge and influence on their community of followers,” the study states.
The patient influencers, who have developed reputations in their “disease category,” are viewed by other patients as knowledgeable.
As many patient influencers are also active in online health communities, they have an opportunity to connect with other patients on their disease journey, offering information and advice in a way that is culturally relevant and non-stigmatizing, according to the researchers.
However, the study found that many pharmaceutical companies are using these patient influencers to promote their drugs to young people, particularly on platforms like TikTok that are popular among teenagers.
“In a way, patient influencers are interactive health education agents who may also share prescription medication information,” the study authors write. “Similar to traditional direct-to-consumer advertising, the phenomenon of patient influencers raises ethical questions that need more investigation.”
The study also found that the patient influencers were not always transparent about their relationships with pharmaceutical companies, which could lead to their followers being misled.
“Pharmaceutical companies have quickly adopted social media strategies to target and connect directly with patients, shape consumers’ brand perceptions, and build relationships with younger audiences in niche market segments,” the study says. “Regulators should scrutinize transparency and disclosure practices concerning digital platforms and unique functionalities such as long-form video, disappearing content, and direct messaging.”
The findings of this study are particularly concerning given the current status of health literacy in the United States, especially among younger generations who may not have the necessary digital literacy to navigate online health information.
Nonprofit and health organizations may collaborate with patient influencers to disseminate targeted health information to improve health literacy in specific patient groups. However, more government attention needs to be paid to this new phenomenon of patient influencers and how this practice is being implemented.
The study highlights the need for increased transparency and regulation in the use of patient influencers for pharmaceutical marketing, particularly when it comes to targeting young people.
As the authors note, “there are ethical and safety issues to consider when patient influencers are utilized as intermediaries between pharmaceutical companies and patients.”
A health advocate called Raw Egg Nationalist commented on the study, arguing that using social media apps like TikTok to market “ad-hoc medications” to children and “mislead and ultimately harm” them is a “cruel trick” that we “should not tolerate.” Instead, he calls for addressing the underlying causes of their alienation, ill health, and unhappiness.
“Hooking our children yet further on ad-hoc medications, rather than helping them – and us – to address the underlying causes of their alienation, ill-health and unhappiness, is a particularly cruel trick, and one we should not tolerate, but a trick wholly in keeping with the general thesis of subversion,” Raw Egg Nationalist writes for The National Pulse. “Whether other social media apps were conceived with the same or similar nefarious ends as TikTok is moot – the early history of Facebook is definitely worth researching – but also beside the point: all of these apps are being used in the same way, to mislead and ultimately harm the youth of our nations.”
“No amount of swiping – in any direction – will make this problem go away,” he says.
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Read the full study below: