Young NHS doctors cash in their credentials for financial gain and “discredit the medical profession” by accepting thousands of pounds to connect commercial products and provide advice on social media.
One of the oldest general practitioners in Great Britain has struck the “horrible” practices of so-called medical influencers – social media stars who are also qualified doctors – which he says can destroy the covenant of trust between doctors and the public.
A disturbing investigation by Mail on Sunday reveals:
- A trained orthopedic surgeon currently working at a London hospital would have paid £ 4,000 to encourage his 244,000 Instagram followers to eat red meat without mentioning NHS health guidelines;
- Another used his social media audience of more than one million followers to promote sunscreen, Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa and BMW sports cars;
- Other healthcare professionals, including dietitians, advertise snacks, shampoos, and supplements, making “misleading” health claims about their effectiveness.
Last night, when our evidence was presented, the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), those healthcare professionals, announced an investigation into the behavior of social media practitioners.
Young NHS doctors cash in their credentials for financial gain and “discredit the medical profession” by accepting thousands of pounds to connect commercial products and provide advice on social media. The Mail On Sunday was first notified of the issue last month when dozens of doctors and scientists began to tweet their concerns about Instagram posts that they found “deeply unethical.” Above, Dr. Joshua Wolrich, who is one of the so-called medical influencers – social media stars who are also qualified physicians
Dr. Joshua Wolrich, a training orthopedic surgeon, working in South London, published a photo of a steak dinner alongside the caption: “Red meat has been the victim of tremendous fear lately. Today is known as #BlueMonday; generally claimed to be the worst Monday of the year. It is a good opportunity to remember how much a source of useful nutrients red meat can be. “Two letters at the very top of the caption – #AD – draw his attention to the fact that the post was actually an advertisement
Dietitian Dr. Megan Rossi (photo) – known as ‘The Gut Health Doctor’ – has used her social media feeds to sell her own brand of £ 3.50 per box breakfast cereal and to promote Ryvita crackers to its 168,000 followers
The HCPC said, “Any information that suggests that there is a risk to public safety or undermines public confidence in the professions that we regulate will be investigated.”
Dr. Gary Marlowe, regional president of the British Medical Association, personally spoke to The Mail on Sunday. Medics who accepted cash to push products or health information were guilty of “extreme dodgy practice.” He added: “The information we provide to patients must not be driven by personal, financial prejudices.
“One of the most important things to be a doctor is that you are familiar. If that is destroyed, it affects the entire doctor-patient relationship.
“There is also a serious risk to the public if they don’t start to trust us, just as we have seen with suspicion of vaccinations. They use their medical authority and change it to currency. It’s terrible behavior. “
The BMA reiterated its concern and stated: “As social media grows, we are aware that more doctors are making commercial agreements. Doctors must be objective when giving medical advice. We are one of the most trusted professions in the world and this must be protected at all costs. “
The red meat campaign that caused indignation
Although the medical influencers act technically within the rules established by the physician’s regulator, the General Medical Council (GMC), a number of experts say that the guidelines are “too vague” and “open to interpretation.”
And there are also echoes of the scandal from the mid-1990s, when it turned out that pharmaceutical companies provided doctors with financial incentives, including money, vacations and ballet tickets, to prescribe brand-name medicines.
Dr. Hazel Wallace (photo), who describes himself as a “food specialist” within the NHS, has promoted Nike sportswear, Alpro ice cream and trendy coconut water
One of Dr. Wallace’s Instagram posts, in which the sweet tooth dog “drools” over this bowl of Alpro vanilla ice cream
Glasgow GP Margaret McCartney said: “The GMC must look better at it and make it clear that all financial interests must be more transparent. But it is not willing to tackle this difficult problem. “
When GMC was approached Sunday, the GMC said it “reflected” on the rise of influencers.
This newspaper was first notified of the issue last month, when dozens of doctors and scientists began to tweet their concerns about Instagram posts that they found “deeply unethical.”
Dr. Joshua Wolrich, a training orthopedic surgeon, working in South London, published a photo of a steak dinner alongside the caption: “Red meat has recently been the victim of many anxiety disorders. Today is known as #BlueMonday; generally claimed to be the worst Monday of the year.
“It’s a good opportunity to remember how much a source of useful nutrients red meat can be.”
Two letters at the very top of the caption – #AD – draw his attention to the fact that the post was actually an advertisement.
Dr. Alex George, a NHS A&E physician and former Love Island participant, and dietitians Priya Tew and Nichola Ludlam-Raine held nearly identical positions that same day. All, it turned out, participated in the same marketing campaign for British beef and lamb and reportedly paid around £ 4,000 each.
When they were contacted by this newspaper, Dr. claimed Wolrich (above) that his Instagram profile “has always been used to enter into an open and robust dialogue with my audience … and to challenge health myths.” But many of his posts are selfies, taken in locker rooms at work, in elevators or in public transportation, and sometimes he wears his medical scrubs
Doctors and scientists were furious and went to Twitter to accuse them of unethical practices.
Concerns were expressed that none of the professionals in their original position reported the proven link between red meat and colon cancer, or the NHS’s recommendation that people eat no more than 70 g of red meat per day.
Gunter Kuhnle, nutrition professor and researcher at the University of Reading, was one of the critics. “Much of my work is about meat and cancer,” he said.
“And if I suddenly started promoting meat substitutes, I would be maliciously attacked because of a conflict of interest – my research would be considered biased, condemned in the medical community. Transparency is so important. Otherwise people lose faith in you. “
Only after questions from various doctors via Twitter did Dr. Wolrich edit his caption with a warning.
Use selfies to sell medical advice
When he was contacted by this newspaper, Dr. Wolrich claimed that his Instagram profile “has always been used to engage in an open and robust dialogue with my audience … and to challenge health myths.”
But many of his posts are selfies, taken in locker rooms at work, in elevators or in public transportation, and sometimes he wears his medical scrubs.
According to videos shared with his Instagram followers, the handsome 29-year-old often travels to a skateboard. He also shares a show business agent with the stars of reality shows Love Island and Made In Chelsea.
Dr. Wolrich has been paid several times to promote products, including a deodorant called NUUD and a home delivery service for fitness fans called Muscle Food.
Dr. Alex George (photo), an NHS A&E doctor, has been paid to promote a brand of sunscreen, Amazon’s Alexa and BMW sports cars among his fans. Currently, the only specific rules for regulating social media offers come from the Advertising Standards Authority, which the sector tackled hard in 2018. Ads should now be clearly indicated at the beginning of the post, usually with the hashtag #AD, or similar. But many of the messages shared by the medical influencers we investigated, including Alex George, did not always adhere to this basic rule
In January, about £ 4,000 was reportedly paid by the meat department of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board to encourage users to consume red meat.
Dr. Wolrich admitted he worked with brands “as long as it is consistent with my ethics and integrity,” and he has “full approval for every formulation.”
He added: “I have rejected the vast majority of brands for which I have been approached for campaigns because I either did not believe in their product or their messages were factually incorrect.”
Dr. McCartney – one of the 11 doctors who recently wrote an open letter in the British Medical Journal insisting on stricter regulations for potential conflicts of interest – warned of the “specific curse” of social media.
“Now everyone can post what they want, whenever they want, and there is no third party like a newspaper or broadcaster to control things,” she said.
“With many of these accounts, the emphasis is on image and attractiveness, and that’s not what you should look at when it comes to science and health.”
Many of these accounts focus on image and attractiveness, and that is not what you should look at when it comes to science and health.
Dr. Margaret McCartney – one of the 11 doctors who have written an open letter in the British Medical Journal calling for stricter regulations for potential conflicts of interest
Alex George, an NHS junior emergency medicine doctor, appeared on Love Island in 2018 and has collected more than a million Instagram followers.
He has been paid to promote a brand of sunscreen, Amazon’s Alexa and BMW sports cars among his fans.
Dr. Hazel Wallace, who describes herself as a ‘nutritionist’ within the NHS, has promoted Nike sportswear, Alpro ice cream and trendy coconut water, while dietician Dr. Megan Rossi, known as ‘The Gut Health Doctor’, feeds her social media to sell her own brand of £ 3.50 per box of cereal and promote Ryvita crackers to her 168,000 followers.
When she was approached, Dr. Rossi that it was her frustration with misleading health claims for some grains that led her to create her own brand.
She added that the health claims for her own grains had been approved by the European Food Safety Authority.
And NHS physician Rupy Aujla, who teaches doctors about healthy eating, has promoted the California Walnuts brand.
Currently, the only specific rules for regulating social media offers come from the Advertising Standards Authority, which the sector brutally tackled in 2018.
Ads should now be clearly indicated at the beginning of the message, usually with the hashtag #AD or something similar.
But many of the messages shared by the medical influencers we investigated, including Alex George, did not always adhere to this basic rule.
Alex George, an NHS junior emergency medicine doctor, appeared on Love Island in 2018 (above) and has collected more than a million Instagram followers
The GMC and HCPC do not provide detailed guidelines for paid promotions. Their social media guidelines contain terms such as ‘probably not misleading’ and ‘factually correct’. Doctors are also told to report conflicts of interest “formally and early.”
But according to Dr. McCartney needed more specific rules to protect the public.
She said, “The GMC is not willing to get involved in this difficult area.” She added that the current guidelines were not enough from a patient’s point of view.
Worrying trend began in America
The community of social influencers on social media has grown steadily over the past two years.
The trend originated in America, where junior – and even student – doctors post videos of themselves dancing in operating rooms and accepting payment from supplement companies to promote products and medicines.
The launch of the new video-based social media platform TikTok has led to even more strange behavior from these, mostly younger, medical professionals.
Nurses and doctors in uniform can be seen with hospital beds. In one case, a nurse mimics a song about why abstinence is the best form of protection against sexually transmitted diseases.
But last December, senior physicians took a stand and wrote a damning letter to the American healthcare company AdventHealth, the employer of an American doctor who promoted testosterone supplements to his 103,000 Instagram followers.
In the letter, the doctors accused him of “using his privilege and position for disgusting financial gain.”
In Britain, criticism of social media stars who use pseudoscientific information to promote a large number of health products, including weight loss supplements and detox tea, has also grown. Often the advertisements do not state that the stars were paid to post.
Now, experts have also questioned the scientific validity of sponsored content posted by medical influencers, particularly in the area of food and nutrition.
“I often see messages and I think:” Where is your proof of that? “Said dietician Catherine Collins, member of the British Dietetic Association.
Dietitian Priya Tew, a presenter on the BBC show Eat Well For Less, published BioCare probiotics in January.
The caption on her post, in addition to a photo of the product, suggested that probiotic foods and supplements may affect our “mental health and state of mind.” But Collins warned: “This is misleading. It is too early to make that clear link, because most of the research has been done on animals. “
Nichola Ludlam-Raine, who has nearly 30,000 Instagram followers, regularly publishes paid content, promoting everything from hemp smoothies to skimmed Philadelphia cream cheese and Hellmann’s mayonnaise.
She also advertises a shampoo brand that, she writes, focuses on “scalp health and hair” and is specifically designed for people “who have suffered hair loss.” However, there is no robust scientific evidence to support this claim.
“The reason why drugs don’t work alongside commercial gain is because it’s very easy to over-sell health related issues,” said Dr. McCartney.
“If what you say works to satisfy a commercial company, you run a mismatch between what your goal is and what is best for the patient.”
Because two-thirds of the British now regularly use social media, doctors’ guidelines urgently need renewal, experts believe. When the GMC was approached on Sunday, the GMC said it would “take action where the safety of the patient was at risk.”
But Anjali Mahto, a qualified physician and consultant dermatologist, said: “Just because a position does no harm doesn’t mean it’s good.
“The guidelines for the use of social media for doctors remain relatively vague and open to interpretation. The GMC must provide clearer guidelines about what is ethical and what is not. “
Catherine Collins added: “If a healthcare provider has to do paid promotions on social media, their posts must be critically reviewed by colleagues before posting.”
About why so many doctors trade a respected profession for Instagram fame, top dietician Luci Daniels has a theory: “It’s hard to be a health professional – there are mountains of paperwork and long hours. Young people may become disillusioned with it.
“But if the fame, glamor and income of an influencer are attractive to you, don’t be a doctor or dietitian – be a professional influencer instead.”