Social media influencers: What to ask when you see a medical, health post

Pharmaceutical companies, health care providers, and advocacy groups are turning to celebrities and influencers to get their messages out on social media. Regulators are keeping a close eye on them.

Ashley Haby’s “Southern Suds and Simple Living” Instagram feed is filled with paid lifestyle posts, featuring food and fashion. But when Walgreen’s went looking for an influencer to promote its flu shot services, they chose the mother of four who brings with her more than 17,000 followers. A self-described “holistic mom,” Haby said her post was not intended to advocate for or against flu shots, but she still got backlash from vaccination opponents. 

Haby’s post made it clear that Walgreen’s paid her for the post, but the government has cited other influencers for not including the required disclosures. 

Actress Julianne Hough was publicly criticized for her Instagram posts raising awareness of endometriosis, which were actually sponsored by the maker of a drug that treats that painful disease. Her representative told us she is no longer involved with the pharmaceutical company.

A Kim Kardashian West post about a drug for morning sickness prompted a 2015 warning letter from the FDA, which said it did not include enough safety information.

“Health is difficult. It’s complex,” CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus said Monday on “CBS This Morning.” “You know, when you say a disease, there are dozens of subtypes to it. So a recommendation has context. And when a social media influencer goes out there — and they have crazy power — power for good, but also that power can cause problems when they say things that don’t make sense.”

Agus said when you see posts related to medical products online, first check if they’re sponsored by someone. Then, he advised, step back.

“Talking about a disease, providing information, I love. But recommending products in health just shouldn’t be done in today’s world,” he said.

When influencers are speaking out to help demystify a disease — like Selma Blair opening up about multiple sclerosis —  Agus said it can offer “beacons of hope for people.” But medical advice should be given by medical professionals. 

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