The Scottish Mail on Sunday


NHS doctors making thousands plugging BMWs, deodorant and snacks on Instagram

- By Eve Simmons

YOUNG NHS doctors are cashing in on their credential­s for financial gain and ‘bringing the medical profession into disrepute’ by accepting thousands of pounds to plug commercial products and give advice on social media.

One of Britain’s most senior GPs has hit out at the ‘appalling’ practices of so-called medical influencer­s – social media stars who are also qualified medics – which he says risks destroying the covenant of trust between doctors and the public.

A disturbing Mail on Sunday investigat­ion reveals:

One trainee orthopaedi­c surgeon, currently working at a London hospital, was allegedly paid £4,000 to encourage his 244,000 Instagram followers to eat red meat, without mentioning NHS health guidelines;

Another used his social media audience of more than a million followers to promote sun cream, Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa and BMW sports cars;

Other practising healthcare profession­als, including dieticians, advertise snacks, shampoos and supplement­s while making

‘If it’s fame and glamour you’re after, don’t be an NHS doctor’

‘misleading’ health claims about their effectiven­ess. Last night, when presented with our evidence, the Health and Care Profession­s Council (HCPC), which polices practising healthcare profession­als, announced a probe into the social media conduct of practition­ers.

The HCPC said: ‘Any informatio­n that suggests there is a risk to the safety of the public or undermines public confidence in the profession­s we regulate will be investigat­ed.’

Speaking to The Mail on Sunday in a personal capacity, Dr Gary Marlowe, regional chairman of the British Medical Associatio­n, said that medics who accepted cash to push products or health informatio­n were guilty of ‘extremely dodgy practice’. He added: ‘The informatio­n we give to patients must not be propelled by personal, financial biases.

‘One of the most important things about being a doctor is that you are trusted. If that is destroyed, it affects the entirety of the doctorpati­ent relationsh­ip. There is also a serious risk for the public if they begin not to trust us, just as we’ve seen with the mistrust of vaccinatio­ns. They are using their medical authority and turning it into currency. It is appalling behaviour.’

The BMA echoed his concerns, stating: ‘As social media grows, we’re aware that more doctors are entering into commercial arrangemen­ts. Doctors must be objective when giving medical advice. We are one of the most trusted profession­s in the world and this must be protected at all costs.’


ALTHOUGH the medical influencer­s are technicall­y acting within rules set out by the doctors’ regulator the General Medical Council (GMC), a number of experts say the guidelines are ‘too vague’ and ‘open to interpreta­tion’.

And there are also echoes of the mid-1990s scandal when drug companies were found to be giving doctors financial incentives, including money, holidays, and ballet tickets, to prescribe branded medicines.

Glasgow GP Margaret McCartney said: ‘The GMC needs to look at it more closely and make it clear that all financial interests have to be more transparen­t. But it is unwilling to tackle this difficult issue.’

When approached by The Mail on Sunday, the GMC said it was ‘reflecting’ on the rise of influencer­s. This newspaper was first alerted to the problem last month, when dozens of doctors and scientists began tweeting their concerns about Instagram posts which they deemed ‘deeply unethical’.

Dr Joshua Wolrich, a trainee orthopaedi­c surgeon working in South London, published a picture of a steak dinner alongside the caption: ‘Red meat has been the victim of an awful lot of fear-mongering lately. Today is known as #BlueMonday; commonly claimed to be the worst Monday of the year.

‘It’s a good opportunit­y to remember how much a source of helpful nutrients red meat can be.’

Two letters written at the very top of the caption – #AD – alerted his followers to the fact that the post was, in fact, an advert.

Dr Alex George, an NHS A&E doctor and former Love Island contestant, and dieticians Priya Tew and Nichola Ludlam-Raine made almost identical posts that same day. All, it transpired, were participat­ing in the same marketing campaign for British beef and lamb, and reportedly paid in the region of £4,000 each.

Medics and scientists were outraged, taking to Twitter to accuse them of unethical practice. Concerns were raised that none of the profession­als, in their original posts, mention the well-evidenced link between red meat and colorectal cancer, or the NHS recommenda­tion that people eat no more than 70g of red meat a day.

Gunter Kuhnle, a nutrition professor and researcher from Reading University, was one of the critics. ‘A lot of my work is about meat and cancer,’ he said.

‘And if I suddenly started to promote meat replacemen­ts then I’d be viciously attacked for a conflict of interest – my research would be considered biased, which is condemned in the medical community. Transparen­cy is so important. Otherwise, people lose trust in you.’

It was only after questionin­g from several doctors over Twitter that Dr Wolrich edited his caption to include a caveat.


WHEN contacted by this newspaper, Dr Wolrich claimed his Instagram profile has ‘always been used to engage in open and robust dialogue with my audience… and to challenge health myths’. But many of his posts are selfies, taken in changing rooms at work, in lifts or on public transport, and sometimes he wears his medical scrubs.

According to videos shared with his Instagram followers, the handsome 29-year-old often travels to work on a skateboard. He also shares a showbusine­ss agent with the stars of reality shows Love Island and Made In Chelsea.

Dr Wolrich has, on several occasions, been paid to promote products, including a deodorant called NUUD and a home-delivery food service for fitness fans called Muscle Food.

In January, he was allegedly paid about £4,000 by the Agricultur­e and Horticultu­re Developmen­t Board’s meat division to encourage users to consume red meat. Dr Wolrich admitted to working with brands ‘as long as it aligns with my ethics and integrity’ and he has ‘full approval on any wording’.

He added: ‘I’ve turned down the vast majority of brands that I have been approached by for campaigns as I either did not believe in their product or their messaging was factually incorrect.’

However, Dr McCartney – one of 11 doctors who recently wrote an open letter in the British Medical Journal urging tighter regulation over potential conflicts of interest – and warned of the ‘particular curse’ of social media. ‘Now anyone can post whatever they want, whenever they want, and there’s no third party like a newspaper or broadcaste­r to check things,’ she said.

‘With many of these accounts, the emphasis is on image and attractive­ness, which isn’t what you should be looking at when it comes to science and health.’

Alex George, an NHS junior doctor in emergency medicine, appeared on Love Island in 2018, and he has amassed more than a million Instagram followers. He has been paid to promote a brand of sun cream, Amazon’s Alexa and BMW sports cars to his fans.

Dr Hazel Wallace, who describes herself as a ‘specialist in nutrition’ within the NHS, has advertised Nike sportswear, Alpro ice cream and trendy coconut water, while dietician Dr Megan Rossi, known as ‘The Gut Health Doctor’, has used her social media feeds to sell her own brand of £3.50-a-box breakfast cereal and to promote Ryvita crackers to her 168,000 followers.

When approached, Dr Rossi said it was her frustratio­n with misleading health claims on some cereals that led her to create her own brand. She added that the health claims of her own cereal had been approved by the European Food Safety Authority.

And NHS doctor Rupy Aujla, who teaches medics about healthy eating, has advertised the California Walnuts brand.

Currently, the only specific rules in place to regulate social media promotions come from the Advertisin­g Standards Authority, which cracked down on the sector in 2018. Advertisem­ents must now be declared clearly at the beginning of the post, commonly with the hashtag #AD, or something similar.

But many of the posts shared by the medical influencer­s we investigat­ed, including Alex George, did not always stick to this basic rule.

The GMC and HCPC give no detailed guidance on paid promotions. Their social media guidance includes terms such as ‘not likely to mislead’ and ‘factually correct’. Medics are also told to declare conflicts of interest ‘formally and early’.

But according to Dr McCartney, more specific rules were needed to protect the public.

She said: ‘The GMC is unwilling to get involved in this difficult area.’

She added that the current guidelines were not enough from a patient’s point of view.


THE community of medical influencer­s on social media has been growing steadily over the past two years.

The trend originated in America, with junior – and even student – doctors posting videos of themselves dancing in operating rooms, and taking payments from supplement companies to promote products and medication­s.

The launch of new, video-based social media platform TikTok has given rise to even more odd behaviour from these, mostly younger, medical profession­als. Nurses and doctors in uniform can be seen messing around with hospital beds. In one instance, a nurse mimes to a song about why abstinence is the best form of protection against sexually transmitte­d disease.

But last December, senior medics took a stand and wrote a damning letter to US healthcare company

AdventHeal­th, the employer of one US doctor who promoted testostero­ne supplement­s to his 103,000 Instagram followers.

In the letter, the doctors accused him of ‘leveraging his privilege and position for disgusting financial gain’.

In Britain, criticism of social media stars who use pseudoscie­ntific informatio­n to promote a host of health products, including weight-loss supplement­s and ‘detox’ teas, has also grown. Often, the ads make no mention that the stars have been paid to post.

Now experts have also called into question the scientific validity of sponsored content posted by medical influencer­s – specifical­ly in the realm of food and nutrition.

‘Often I see posts and I think, “Where is your evidence for that?’” said dietician Catherine Collins, a member of the British Dietetic Associatio­n.

Dietician Priya Tew, a presenter on the BBC show Eat Well For Less, advertised probiotics brand BioCare in January. The caption on her post, alongside a picture of the product, suggested that probiotic foods and supplement­s can affect our ‘mental health and mood’. But Collins warned: ‘This is misleading. It is too early to make that clear link as most of the research has been done in animals.’

Nichola Ludlam-Raine, who has almost 30,000 Instagram followers, regularly posts paid-for content, promoting everything from hemp smoothies to low-fat Philadelph­ia cream cheese and Hellmann’s mayonnaise. She also advertises a shampoo brand that, she writes, targets ‘scalp health as well as the hair’ and is specifical­ly designed for people ‘who have suffered hair loss’. However, there is no robust scientific evidence to support this claim.

‘The reason why medicine doesn’t work alongside commercial gain is because it’s very easy to oversell things in the realm of health,’ said Dr McCartney.

‘If what you’re saying is working to satisfy a commercial company, you’ll end up with a mismatch between what your goal is and what is best for the patient.’

With two-thirds of Britons now regularly using social media, doctors’ guidelines are in need of an urgent revamp, experts believe.

When approached by The Mail on Sunday, the GMC said it would ‘take action where patient safety was at risk’.

But Anjali Mahto, a qualified doctor and consultant dermatolog­ist, said: ‘Just because a post doesn’t cause harm doesn’t mean it’s fine.

‘The guidelines for social media use for medics remain relatively vague and open to interpreta­tion. The GMC needs to provide clearer guidelines surroundin­g what is ethical and what isn’t.’

Catherine Collins added: ‘If a healthcare profession­al must do paid promotions on social media, then their messages should be critically reviewed by peers before they post.’

As for why so many doctors are swapping a well-respected profession for Instagram fame, top dietician Luci Daniels has a theory: ‘It’s tough to be a health profession­al – there are mounds of paperwork and long hours. So young people might become disillusio­ned with it. But if the fame, glamour and income of being an influencer is attractive to you, don’t be a doctor or dietician – be a profession­al influencer instead.’

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 ??  ?? Dr Alex George BMW AND AMAZON
 ??  ?? Dr Megan Rossi CEREAL AND RYVITA

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