'TikTok can't be ignored': How hospital marketing chiefs weigh the platform's risks, rewards

Health system marketing leaders told Becker's they're balancing concerns about TikTok's data privacy and potentially deleterious mental health effects on teens with its value as a healthcare communications tool.

"We use TikTok and other social media for limited purposes such as recruiting and community engagement," said Suzanne Spruce, senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer at Brewer, Maine-based Northern Light Health. "However, given the security concerns associated with social media in particular, we take extra security precautions such as limiting the type of information posted, as well as limiting access by employees while on our network."

Earlier in March, the Biden administration threatened to ban TikTok unless its Chinese owners sold the company over worries about the country's communist government having access to the data of the platform's more than 100 million American users. Chinese law requires businesses to give the government access to data if it's deemed to be in the interest of national security. TikTok parent company ByteDance is headquartered in Beijing.

TikTok executives have said the government hasn't made such a request, and that TikTok partner Oracle plans to store American users' data in the U.S. under a $1.5 billion project called Project Texas (Oracle is based in Austin).

TikTok CEO Shou Chew recently testified before Congress to try to assuage members' concerns about data privacy, as well as ones about the potential dangers the app poses to youth mental health.

Renton, Wash.-based Providence, however, said it uses TikTok to improve kids' emotional well-being. The health system is an official partner of TikTok's learning platform, providing mental wellness education resources.

"Since the pandemic began, concerns about mental health for children and adolescents skyrocketed, with more than a third of high school students reporting poor mental health and 44 percent reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness," said Mary Renouf, vice president of community engagement and patient communication at Providence. "TikTok controversies haven’t stopped those audiences from seeking health content on the platform, so it is important they're able to find clinically vetted information from experts in an entertaining and digestible way."

Research has found that a growing number of young people turn to social media platforms like TikTok, rather than physicians, for medical advice, making it more critical for health systems to be sources of truth online.

"As a marketer looking to access Gen Z where less than 50 percent of adults have a primary care physician, TikTok can't be ignored," said Brian Deffaa, chief marketing officer of Baltimore-based LifeBridge Health.

But he noted that "HIPAA and TikTok aren't the best of friends on most any given day as you’re only one misguided overshare away from a PR crisis," as some health systems can attest. Plus, he added, China doesn't have the best track record of defending privacy or intellectual property — and healthcare leaders are desperate to avoid patient data breaches these days.

"The obvious risk/reward calculus that results is one that I think we're all struggling with at the moment," Mr. Deffaa said.

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