Exposed: How NHS doctors are making thousands of pounds by plugging BMWs, deodorant, sun ... .

Orthopaedics

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Exposed: How NHS doctors are making thousands of pounds by plugging BMWs, deodorant, sun cream and snacks on Instagram

  • Trainee orthopaedic surgeon was allegedly paid £4,000 to urge his 244,000 Instagram followers to eat red meat - with no mention of NHS health guidelines
  • Another who has over 1m followers promoted sun cream, Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa and BMW sports cars
  • Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) will now probe social media conduct of practitioners

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 ‘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.

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. The Mail On Sunday 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’. Above, Dr Joshua Wolrich, who is one of the so-called medical influencers - social media stars who are also qualified medics

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. The Mail On Sunday 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’. Above, Dr Joshua Wolrich, who is one of the so-called medical influencers - social media stars who are also qualified medics

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 recently. 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 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 recently. 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

Dietician Dr Megan Rossi (pictured) - 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

Dietician Dr Megan Rossi (pictured) - 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

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 doctor-patient 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.’

The red meat campaign that sparked outrage

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.

Dr Hazel Wallace (pictured), who describes herself as a ‘specialist in nutrition’ within the NHS, has advertised Nike sportswear, Alpro ice cream and trendy coconut water

Dr Hazel Wallace (pictured), who describes herself as a ‘specialist in nutrition’ within the NHS, has advertised Nike sportswear, Alpro ice cream and trendy coconut water

One of Dr Wallace's Instagram posts, in which the sweet-toothed medic 'drools' over this bowl of Alpro vanilla ice-cream

One of Dr Wallace's Instagram posts, in which the sweet-toothed medic 'drools' over this bowl of Alpro vanilla ice-cream

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.

When contacted by this newspaper, Dr Wolrich (above) 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

When contacted by this newspaper, Dr Wolrich (above) 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

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.

Using selfies to sell medical advice

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.

Dr Alex George (pictured), an NHS A&E doctor has been paid to promote a brand of sun cream, Amazon’s Alexa and BMW sports cars to his fans. 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. Ads must now be declared clearly at the beginning of the post, commonly with the hashtag #AD, or similar. But many of the posts shared by the medical influencers we investigated, including Alex George, did not always stick to this basic rule

Dr Alex George (pictured), an NHS A&E doctor has been paid to promote a brand of sun cream, Amazon’s Alexa and BMW sports cars to his fans. 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. Ads must now be declared clearly at the beginning of the post, commonly with the hashtag #AD, or similar. But many of the posts shared by the medical influencers we investigated, including Alex George, did not always stick to this basic rule

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 – 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.’

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.
Dr Margaret McCartney – one of 11 doctors who wrote an open letter in the British Medical Journal urging tighter regulation over potential conflicts of interest

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.

Alex George, an NHS junior doctor in emergency medicine, appeared on Love Island in 2018 (above), and he has amassed more than a million Instagram followers

Alex George, an NHS junior doctor in emergency medicine, appeared on Love Island in 2018 (above), and he has amassed more than a million Instagram followers

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.

Worrying trend started in America

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.’