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In the age of digital interconnectivity, social media platforms wield immense power as a primary source of information. Dr Shahien Dollie delves deep into the impact of medical misinformation in the realm of aesthetic medicine on these platforms, drawing parallels between historical quackery and modern-day hoaxes. As the demand for aesthetic treatments rises, so does the volume of false claims and unsafe recommendations. This article sheds light on the dangers of such misinformation and provides guidance for patients and medical professionals navigating the digital landscape.
From Rattlesnakes to Retweets: A Journey Through Medical Misinformation
At the end of the twentieth century, a self-proclaimed Rattlesnake King arrives in a small town in the Wild West. He skilfully performs his medical show, presenting his patented Snake Oil Liniment and declaring its miraculous ability to cure anything from chronic pain to paralysis. Meet Clark Stanley, a former cowboy turned entrepreneur and the original snake oil salesman.
Fast forward over 100 years to the present day, and you’ll have no trouble finding all sorts of products that claim to cure HIV, cancers, COVID and every other possible ailment online via your favourite social media platform. Unfortunately, aesthetic medicine is not immune to these bogus strategies.
The Rise and Reach of Aesthetic Medicine on Social Media
Aesthetic medicine is a branch of medicine that focuses on enhancing the appearance of patients by means of various medical procedures and products. As a consequence, self-esteem is often also improved. In recent years, aesthetic medicine has been proven to be one of the fastest-growing fields of medicine, particularly with young people seeking to bolster their confidence.
At the start of 2023, with the world’s population at over 8 billion, nearly 60% of people are active social media users. 1Over the last year, the average daily time spent on social media is just over 2.5 hours, with Meta (formerly named Facebook), YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, WeChat and TikTok representing the most popular platforms.1 However, along with the rise in the use of social media and aesthetic medicine, there has also been an increase in medical misinformation that may mislead, confuse, and harm potential or existing patients.
The Dangers of Digital Deception in Aesthetic Medicine
Medical misinformation is defined as false or inaccurate information that can affect people’s health.2 It can be spread intentionally or unintentionally by various sources, such as influencers, bloggers, celebrities, advertisers, or even health care professionals. While the vast majority of medical information posted online by medical professionals is accurate, reliable and in keeping with clinical practice standards, this is overshadowed by the sheer number of posts related to medical information posted by non-medical professionals, which is often inaccurate, misleading and even unsafe.3
Some common examples of medical misinformation on social media relating to aesthetic medicine include:4,5
- Myths and misconceptions regarding the causes and treatments of common aesthetic conditions such as acne, hair loss, wrinkles, or cellulite.
- Sharing before and after photos that have been digitally altered to exaggerate results or hide the risks of complications of procedures or products.
- Promoting unsafe or unproven products or procedures that claim to have miraculous results on the skin, body, or hair.
The consequences of the rapid spread of medical misinformation for healthcare users may range from the innocuous to the harmful. On the one hand, this may only lead to wasting time or money on ineffective procedures and products. Still, on the other hand, it may lead to scarring, disfigurement, worsening of the original condition, infections and potentially even death.3
From a healthcare professional’s point of view, medical misinformation may lead to the patient having unrealistic expectations. A registered practitioner also has to compete with unlicensed practitioners who offer cheaper services but compromise on quality and safety. These unlicensed practitioners could face legal and ethical issues when endorsing unproven, unsafe procedures or products.
Countering Misinformation: A Call to Action for Patients and Professionals
Thus, it is important for both patients and healthcare professionals to be aware of medical misinformation.
How can the potential patient actively contribute to minimising harmful misinformation?
- Always seek reliable and evidence-based sources of information from reputable websites, journals, organisations, and experts.
- Be critical of information found on social media that makes miraculous claims; try to verify its credibility before making any decisions that might affect your health and wellbeing.
- Consult with licensed and reputable healthcare professionals; the Aesthetic and Anti-Aging Medicine Society of South Africa maintains a register of appropriately trained and skilled aesthetic medical practitioners in South Africa.
- Report any suspicious or potentially harmful content to the relevant authorities and the social media platform administrators.
Medical professionals are encouraged to follow ethical guidelines when posting content. They have to avoid deceptive or fraudulent practices, promote evidence-based procedures, educate their patients regarding realistic expectations and potential complications, and use their authority to correct and address misinformation they come across.
An ever-increasing number of people use social media as a source of medical information. But while medical misinformation may result in deception and harm, social media could provide a community for patients where they could gain support and reliable, science-backed information.
To report any unsafe practice or if you have any queries, please feel free to contact AAMSSA firstname.lastname@example.org
Find a doctor practising aesthetic medicine in South Africa by visiting www.aestheticdoctors.co.za
Disclaimer: This article is published solely for informational purposes and should not be considered a substitute for professional medical guidance.
- Chaffey D. Global social media statistics research summary 2023. Smart Insights. 2023. URL: https://www.smartinsights.com/social-media-marketing/social-media-strategy/new-global-social-media-research/
- Khullar D. Social Media and Medical Misinformation: Confronting New Variants of an Old Problem. JAMA. 2022;328(14):1393–1394. doi:10.1001/jama.2022.17191
- Wojtara, Magda Sara. “Use of Social Media for Patient Education in Dermatology: Narrative Review.” JMIR Dermatology 6 (2023): e42609.
- Rolls, Kaye, and Debbie Massey. “Social media is a source of health-related misinformation.” Evidence-based nursing (2020).
- Yeung, Andy Wai Kan, et al. “Medical and health-related misinformation on social media: bibliometric study of the scientific literature.” Journal of medical Internet research 24.1 (2022): e28152.
MBChB (UCT), Adv Dip Aesth Med (FPD).
Dr Dollie has completed multiple hands-on, intense, focussed sessions on facial anatomy, physiology, dermatological pathology, and numerous masterclasses on Non-Surgical Aesthetic Procedures ranging from PLLA suspension sutures to Nanofat/SVF grafting. He is a co-founder and medical director at The Aesthetic Doctors in Nelspruit, South Africa. Dr Dollie enjoys local training in South Africa, attending and has delivered live presentations at local and international aesthetic conferences in Europe, Asia and South Africa, including IMCAS (Paris, Bali, and India), AMWC Monaco, International Kholkida Congress Georgia (Tbilisi). Furthermore, he has authored several aesthetic articles in electronic and print media. Dr Dollie has a passion for education and is an active advocate for the practice of world-class aesthetic medicine on South African shores. He is an executive committee member and serves as treasurer of the Aesthetic and Anti-Ageing Medicine Society of South Africa (AAMSSA).