It’s something we often talk about (and praise) on this blog: A healthcare professional takes to social media and creates a post or even an entire series of content that makes them and their profession seem down-to-earth, and educates and helps patients along the way.
So when four labor and delivery nurses from Emory University Hospital took to TikTok to participate in a viral trend, it should have been a huge success, or at least reasonably pleasant content.
Instead, their TikTok created backlash among patients and the general public, has resulted in their firing, and required Emory Healthcare to issue a public apology.
How could such good intentions and enormous potential for positive results have gone so wrong?
The nurses decided to participate in a TikTok trend where people list things that give them “the ick” - things that disgust them or make them uncomfortable. They included asking how much the baby weighs when a parent is still holding it; patients and their families constantly coming up to the nurse’s station with questions or requests for things like water; and patients who refuse an epidural even when they’re experiencing extreme pain.
In some contexts - for instance, as a private joke among their colleagues - this might have gone over successfully or at least without any major fallout. But targeting and releasing the video to the general public ended up causing offense, especially among parents, pregnant people, and even other nurses.
While the original TikTok has since been deleted, it was copied and uploaded by several other people, including this user, credited in an informative and helpful BuzzFeed News article. The re-poster begins their description of the video: “Unprofessional nurses”. The majority of the more than 18,000 comments the re-post has garnered so far adamantly agree.
TikTok is a way for medical professionals and healthcare organizations to reach up to 1 billion viewers and impact them in a positive way , if they do it right. Here’s what the Emory nurses neglected to consider.
- Know your audience. Earlier this year, we covered the new trend of making ads funny. This can work for health and pharma ads and awareness campaigns on social media (and elsewhere), but the medical professional or organization has to know their audience. In this case, it seems that a significant portion of the people who saw the Emory nurses’ TikTok didn’t appreciate the humor. And no wonder….
- Empathize and connect. One of the reasons the nurses’ humor failed is that patients today are seeking a sense of empathy and connection with pharma companies and health professionals. TikTok users felt that the video minimized and belittled the concerns of patients, and mocked the enthusiasm of new parents. Many commenters there and in articles about the TikTok have expressed worry that they’ll have nurses like these when they go into labor.
A major contributing factor is the way the nurses talk about their “icks”. Maybe if they had done it with a lighthearted tone, or even finished the video with a “Just kidding, guys, we love you all” type of sentiment, it could have been salvaged. But the four nurses seem to truly have annoyance in their voices. Their mannerisms show frustration and exasperation. One even rolls her eyes.
- Know your audience (part 2). Many people who saw the TikTok questioned why medical professionals are making funny internet videos while working.
Medical professionals posting from work isn’t entirely unusual. For instance, some surgeons and other specialists feature behind-the-scenes looks or live feeds of procedures on their social media feeds, and have met with praise for demystifying them. Others show a lighter side at work - for instance, remember those viral video of nurses in dancing in their hospitals at the height of the Covid pandemic?
Those went viral for the right reasons, being praised for boosting morale and celebrating frontline workers.
These successful social media posts and feeds are positive or informational in nature, and so may have caused people to pose fewer questions, if any.
Whatever the case, the reaction shows that those following or watching content from these maternity nurses have high expectations about their commitment and compassion, something the nurses seem to have missed.
- Keep important issues in mind. Just about any healthcare worker who seems to lack compassion and professionalism probably won’t do well on social media, but the fact that these nurses work in a field that mostly involves care for women makes things even worse.
They seem to have totally neglected to consider one of the biggest issues in healthcare right now: women not being listened to or respected by healthcare providers. While completely overlooked by the nurses (who are all women), the issue sparked a reaction from countless viewers.
Gender bias in medicine isn’t a trend, but a terrible truth. Forbes reports that 52% of women feel it has had a negative effect on their healthcare. More than 700 diseases are diagnosed later in women than in men, sometimes with deadly results.
Women also suffer more, with their pain being taken less seriously by practitioners and treated with lower doses of painkillers, or even none at all.
The gender bias exists in all fields of medicine, including gynecology and obstetrics.
In the BuzzFeed article’s comments section, one commenter, whose handle is catkin, puts it very well: “my biggest ick is the way women are treated in the medical field is abysmal and it only gets worse when we get pregnant.” Another replied “Some of the most dehumanizing experiences I've had have been while pregnant and postpartum. You are spot on.”
When you look at all of these elements together, it’s suddenly very clear why the Emory nurses’ perhaps well intentioned TikTok failed. It serves as a lesson to health and pharma workers to be careful not only about the content of what they share on social media, but also the way in which it’s presented. And of course, it’s a reminder of just how crucial it is to know your audience.
If the lack of compassion and awareness these nurses showed in their TikTok reflects how they act in real life, this social media fail may have one winner: maternity patients at Emory Hospital, who will no longer have to experience it offline.
Contact Our Writer – Alysa Salzberg