How Social Media Can Combat Health Disparities

SXSW Conference Health Track Session Summary

This article is part of an extended series summarizing discussions at recent healthcare conferences about improving health equity through technology. This session summary contains details on the SXSW Conference Health Track. You can read our conference overview and find links to all articles here.

Learn more about StartingUpGood’s Health + Equity + Tech Project.

How Social Media Can Combat Health Disparities


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought healthcare inequality into national headlines. The next generation of medical students are stepping up to unearth many of the ways that health care perpetuates disparities. Medical equations, for example, that measure kidney function take race into account, making it more difficult for Black individuals to receive kidney transplants. Social media platforms such as TikTok, Clubhouse, Instagram, and Twitter have become key mediums for medical professionals to educate audiences about ongoing disparities. This session will be a conversation between medical students actively fighting against medical racism, and the unique ways that the current generation of rising medical professionals are fighting against systemic disparities in medicine.


Three impressive third-year medical students take the stage in this enlightening panel to talk about how they leverage social media platforms to highlight structural racism embedded in medical education.

Joel Bervell, Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine

In 2017, Joel graduated from Yale University, where he earned a BA in Molecular Cellular Developmental Biology. At Washington State University, Joel served as Medical Student Council President and the co-founder and president of a chapter of the Student National Medical Association. Joel is committed to fighting health disparities in medicine through education and regularly shares topics about racial disparities/ biases in healthcare and other industries on his TikTok and Instagram (@joelbervell) where his platforms have over 450,000+ combined followers and 35 million impressions.

Naomi Nkinsi, University of Washington

Naomi graduated from the University of Washington with double majors in cellular molecular and developmental biology and public health. Currently, Naomi attends the University of Washington School of Medicine and is also working towards her Master of Public Health in global health at the University of Washington School of Public Health. Naomi is a strong advocate for centering anti-racism in medical education and ending the practice of race-based clinical practice, which continues to be common in medical practice today.

LaShyra Nolen, Harvard University

“Lash” is a third-year student at Harvard Medical School where she is serving as student council president of her class, the first documented black woman to hold this leadership position. She is a published author and fervent advocate for social justice whose commentary has been published in the Boston Globe, NEJM, Nature, and HuffPost, among others.

Key Points

  • Social media can break the “ladder of hierarchy” that exists in academia.
  • When you educate the public, people can put pressure on institutions to make inroads and progress.
  • Social media can force institutions to relook at themselves and their actions.
  • Medical education is so focused on learning hard sciences, but it often ignores the history of medicine.
  • It’s time for institutions to “stop with the task forces” and move forward from data to actually doing the practice.
  • We need to increase the number of Black medical students, something that happened during the pandemic when MCAT scores were not used in admission decisions, application fees were waived, and in-person interviews (and their associated travel costs) were replaced with Zoom meetings.

Examples of How People of Color Are Disadvantaged in the Identification and Care of Diseases

Kidney Disease

  • Naomi called attention to flaws in how we determine if someone has kidney disease by measuring creatinine and assuming a different calculation for Black people.
  • This flaw resulted in Black patients having lower access to transplant services, to specialized kidney care, and to insurance payment for kidney care, and it’s contributing to why Black patients are found to have kidney disease a lot later.
  • Naomi’s research and activism convinced the University of Washington to remove race-based criteria from determining kidney disease, and many other hospitals followed suit.
  • She then met with the Chief Medical Officer of the National Kidney Foundation and the American Society of Nephrology.
  • Both institutions have since officially announced that it’s no longer appropriate to use race in calculating kidney disease.

Lyme Disease

  • Lash was unsatisfied with how her medical school glossed over the difficulties of early Lyme disease diagnosis through the bull’s-eye rash in people with darker skin.
  • She wrote an op-ed published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June 2020, “How medical education is missing the bull’s eye”:

Many medical schools throughout the country have integrated courses about health disparities into their curricula and have made diversity and community engagement key pillars of their institutional missions. Such efforts may fall flat, however, if we don’t ask ourselves important questions: What is the true value of these institutional reforms if we continue to underrepresent minority populations and women in our foundational learning material — or exclude them altogether? How might this lack of representation indirectly contribute to the disparities we seek to address? And, what moral responsibility do medical schools have to ensure that students graduate with the tools and experience necessary to equitably treat these patient populations?…Medical education is missing the bull’s-eye. The current standardized, homogeneous representation of white males in medical education is exclusionary and puts patients of color and women at risk for adverse health outcomes.

Pulse Oximeter Measurements of Blood Oxygen Saturation

  • Joel’s first Tik Tok video in his racial bias in medicine series focused on how pulse oximeters (devices that you put on your finger to measure your blood oxygen saturation level) don’t read equally on black skin as on lighter skin.
  • There’s actually a three times higher likelihood of there being an overestimate in oxygen saturation levels for someone that has darker skin, which has huge implications on COVID-19 treatment.

You can read a summary of all our 2022 healthcare conference coverage here, or check out specific coverage of each conference:

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