This M4 confronts medical racism, one TikTok video at a time

Jennifer Lubell , Contributing News Writer

Joel Bervell’s quest to address medical myths and inform and educate through social media began with an article about pulse oximeters.

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The study, published in 2020, stated that pulse oximeters could overestimate oxygen saturation in Black patients. “I remember reading that study and thinking: I never saw this in my medical school classes. Why is that?” said Bervell, an AMA member. An informational video he posted on TikTok about the study went viral, accruing half a million views in 24 hours.

Doctors, nurses and physician assistants who left comments said they had never heard about this, and that it would change their practice.

Bervell wondered how other content might be affecting marginalized communities, a timely topic as the U.S. observes Black History Month in February. 

Using social media as his platform, he became known as a “medical myth buster,” posting content online about health inequities and overlooked aspects of Black history in medicine not often discussed in medical school. His series, "Racial Bias in Medicine,” hails 750,000 followers across TikTok and Instagram at his @JoelBervell handle, which he also uses for Twitter and Facebook.

For an episode of “AMA Update,” the fourth-year medical student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine discussed his efforts to better inform the public about health policy.

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Bervell, who previously served as an AMA Medical Student Digital Fellow, attributes his success to presenting ideas about medicine and racial bias in an understandable manner that’s accessible to the public.

“You can reach hundreds of thousands to millions of people to tell these stories,” he said.

Most research is locked behind a paywall, and people can’t get access to it. Condensing findings into a 30-second video and explaining how this affects patients “allows people to step into this world that seems really abstruse and be able to engage with it. I think that's why the posts have done so well. It's things that affect everyone,” said Bervell.

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His series has attracted an eclectic array of viewers, from singer Jordin Sparks to officials at the World Health Organization and the White House. This has led to new opportunities, said Bervell, who participated in a roundtable on health care leadership and social media convened by the White House Office of Public Engagement.

“That was an amazing opportunity to hear from the Biden-Harris administration about things that were happening on the ground and being able to create videos in real time about that,” he said.

An example of this is the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, an easy-to-remember number that operates like 911 for those in mental distress. Bervell got to hear about it before it was released to the public and created content to walk people through the new initiative.

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Social media gets a bad rap, but it can be used to do good, Bervell said.

Physicians and medical students who believe they something to say should just start doing it, he said. If you speak with a patient, give them a diagnosis, and explain to them how they can treat the diagnosis, you can take that and make a video out of it.

“The world needs more people to put out accurate, equitable information,” he said.

AMA Update” covers health care topics affecting the lives of physicians and patients. Hear from physicians and experts on public health, advocacy issues, scope of practice and more—because who’s doing the talking matters. You can catch every episode by subscribing to the AMA’s YouTube channel or the audio-only podcast version, which also features educational presentations and in-depth discussions.