Jason Campbell, a 31-year-old resident physician in Portland, Oregon, has been working nearly 24 hours a day at his hospital during the coronavirus pandemic. He only gets short breaks to recharge.
Sometimes, in those small windows, he'll film a TikTok. Other times, he has been recruiting his colleagues to dance on camera with him.
Campbell has only been active on the platform for a few weeks, but he's already amassed over 208,000 followers and over a million likes across his videos.
Campbell is one of a handful of medical professionals on apps like TikTok and Instagram who have seen breakout stardom during the global health crisis. The tense climate has affected almost everyone working in health care, and many like Campbell are turning to social media to help wrestle with the new reality. Their videos have been incredibly popular, as doctors and nurses everywhere are being praised as heroes in the fight against the virus. Their viral stories are often compelling and pull at our heartstrings in this tough time.
However, the rise of these "doctor and nurse influencers" has also been criticized by some as inappropriate, with some of the videos being used as fodder for those who believe the crisis is overblown. It has also led to debate about who exactly is benefiting from this spotlight and attention being paid to health care workers.
Some of the influencers who have become the most popular for their videos during the pandemic are facing questions about how close they actually are to the front lines. During a time when doctors and nurses are rightfully getting a ton of praise and recognition for their work, how can we make sure we’re giving it to the correct, and most credible, people?
Joel Hentrich, 32, is an operating room nurse in the St. Louis area. He leads a team of nurses in the COVID-19 unit of a hospital.
He and his staff recognize they're "potentially being exposed" all the time, he told BuzzFeed News, but "it’s a patient's life over potential exposure."
Hentrich had a TikTok account for some time before COVID-19 cases escalated in the US, but his recent posts have all been work-related and have naturally seen much more engagement and views than any before. A video he posted on March 30 of a doctor putting on all of his PPE gear went megaviral and has been viewed over 7 million times.
Hentrich works 36 hours a week in shifts. So while his work is very stressful and high-stakes, he has a good amount of leisure time. He said he allocates a few hours every week to coming up with ideas, filming, and then posting his TikToks.
"I’m pretty much solely utilizing TikTok as my go-to app for social media content because it’s quick, easy, enjoyable, and there’s such a large audience always looking for new, fun content," he said.
"TikTok has been one of the ways that I can debrief from the stresses of being on the frontlines. The amount of love and support I’ve received has been nothing less than amazing."
Hentrich's videos tend to be more sentimental and informative than Campbell's. Campbell said his focus is to provide more levity. Dancing and participating in viral challenges has become an outlet for him to "let loose" completely in between surgeries and patient care, he said.
"It has allowed me to come together with different people at work," said Campbell, who works in the anesthesiology wing. "We take our jobs seriously, but we don’t have to take ourselves seriously. As a coping mechanism, it’s something I do often."
A cursory scroll through the comment sections of some of Campbell's most viral dances shows people showering him and his coworkers with praise. He's called a "hero" often, with many thanking him for his work.
His dancing has become so synonymous with his practice that he's being called the "TikTokDoc."
Beyond a smile or connection, Campbell stressed that he wants to offer his followers an "authentic" and humanizing look at his profession. He intentionally films in operating rooms, sometimes directly after a serious operation.
"I do it in the hospital because it’s part of our message...it's authentic," he said. "If there’s no pandemic going on, I’m still working 12 hours a day often. I’m still taking care of patients coming in for abuse and trauma and all kinds of horrifying things, this is just one glimpse America gets to see into the medical world."
Nurses at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia also experienced fast fame last week. They performed a choreographed dance to the song "Level Up" while dressed in full PPE gear, which went viral on Instagram.
"This is a fun way we can build up our teamwork during #covid times," they wrote in the caption.
Jeff Doucette, the chief nursing officer at the hospital, told BuzzFeed News the employees featured in their dance all work seven days a week in a new COVID-19 testing site. The team created this video, and other choreographed videos, as part of their preshift huddle to "boost morale."
"We see this expression of joy as critical at a time like this," said Doucette. "Our team does this prior to opening and prior to seeing any patients. We fully support the team in having fun to relieve the extreme stress and anxiety we are all facing on the front lines."
While most of these videos are well-received by a public eager to shower praise on health care workers, some of them have also become hotbeds for contentious conversations on social media as well.
Some people online have criticized health care workers for engaging in frivolous activities during the pandemic. Others are using dry internet humor to suggest that there is too much levity in these serious times.
Others think their efforts should be limited to purely educational content. There is no room for a doctor or nurse to be performatively fun if people are dying at grave rates, they've tweeted.
In fact, the criticism has even been used by those in conservative and far-right circles to delegitimize the pandemic and the very real reports of dire hospital conditions.
There are also questions about whether some of the most popular influencers are the best suited to be the face of the health care industry, with some facing questions about their credentials.
Recently, an influencer and registered nurse named Miki Rai has caused some people to raise an eyebrow over her recently popular COVID-19 videos. Despite questions surrounding her current employment status, Rai continues to post videos in her scrubs and hangs a stethoscope around her neck.
Rai is a registered nurse (BuzzFeed News has independently verified), and according to her website and LinkedIn, she has been working as an RN for the Pediatric ICU of the UCLA Health hospital in Los Angeles.
However, a rep for the hospital told BuzzFeed News that Rai has not been an employee there since October 2019. In February, she shared an Instagram and a subsequent video on YouTube about working at home as a nurse. Rai has not responded to multiple inquiries about what her current employment is.
A former follower named Jess told BuzzFeed News she had to unsubscribe because she believes Rai is "giving the false impression that she's working in a hospital right now" and is trying "to capitalize on the pandemic."
Jess and other followers are trying to press Rai for answers because they believe her videos — albeit informational and trendy — "hugely discredit actual medical workers and the life-risking stress they are enduring."
"I have friends actually working in a hospital right now," she said. "They barely get rest and are constantly in a state of distress."
Commenters have also questioned Rai's current employment status. They have written that they feel very uncomfortable if she's being heralded as a "hero" and savior if she herself is not on the front lines or currently practicing medicine.
Still, Rai's almost daily content receives high praise and engagement from her adoring followers. Like many others, she receives floods of comments from people calling her a "hero" and thanking her for her "sacrifice."
In late March, Rai gave interviews to outlets like the Daily Mail, where she was heralded as a nurse who's been "serving on the frontlines" and "working nonstop" during the pandemic.
Despite these criticisms, Mikhail Varshavski, a family medicine physician who’s more famously known these days as “Doctor Mike” to his 3.6 million Instagram followers, believes having more medical presence does more good than harm — and is something you can do responsibly.
Varshavski has been using social media to amplify his practice and his message for five years now. He said he encourages more medical professionals to adopt social media to meet people where they are.
"It’s a high-stake time to start doing this, but I think it is important to do this," he said of his fellow health care providers who are "creating new lines of communication" with those who just want to stay informed.
He's less concerned about the moral quagmires about ego and performance on apps like TikTok and Instagram, and wants to stay focused on what's being said and if it's medically sound.
"I generally try to think everyone has good intentions. And I'm sure some people enjoy being popular," said Varshavski. "But I do it for the absolute utmost integrity for medicine."
"If you think your expert opinion should be held in higher regard than the CDC or WHO without new pieces of evidence that you've seen and they haven't, I think that's crossing a line," he added, advising that audiences "should always check that a doctor giving any kind of advice is board certified in their given speciality."
For Campbell, he said his program director is aware of his newfound online fame and is OK with it — as long as he's still putting his care and profession first.
"I worked 24 hours yesterday, I have a [COVID] case tomorrow, and a case the next day. I still work 80 hours a day. My program director doesn’t care how many followers I have as long as I’m taking care of my patients."
However, he believes that having a spotlight of any kind comes with serious responsibilities.
"The thing about influencers that we can do a better job of is it seems to be always influencing a brand or buying something. I’d love to see more people influence change in cultural and socioeconomic ways, and addressing wealth disparity."