With nearly 18 million TikTok followers, dermatologist Dr. Muneeb Shah frequently hears from telemedicine startups looking to work with him on branded content. But he has been wary.
“Over the last year, I’ve had six or seven teledermatology companies reach out to me,” he said.
He opted to turn them down. He’d worked with one of them two years ago after finding out that it used board-certified dermatologists. But then it changed its business model and started allowing non-dermatologists to prescribe skin treatments online, which made him decide to end his contract with them.
“I feel strongly that board-certified dermatologists should be involved in that process,” said Dr. Shah.
Last year, he was approached for sponsored content by teledermatology platform Cortina, a seven-month-old startup founded by a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. Impressed by its dedication to using board-certified dermatologists, he decided to join as an investor and board member. He now serves as the company’s medical content advisor, where he advises the company on its social content — with a focus on TikTok.
“We want to work with experts in … dermatology. Dr. Shah’s followers trust him because he is a board-certified expert in that. It’s important to work with appropriate individuals to share your message in all forms of media, from print to digital to TikTok,” said Cortina founder and CEO Dr. Reid Maclellan, who said Dr. Shah’s follower count and expertise had caught his attention. In addition to currently serving as an adjunct professor at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Maclellan is a surgeon who treats birth defects at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Multiple telemedicine platforms, such as Apostrophe and Nurx, have turned to TikTok’s powerful skinfluencers to market their services. These include a range of influencers focused on skin care, including dermatologists, estheticians and individuals sharing reviews of products they’ve tested. Dr. Maclellan said it was important to work with a board-certified dermatologist for the first content partnership, but the company is open to doing sponsored content with other types of TikTok influencers in the future.
Among the reasons many consumers have turned to dermatologists on TikTok are the barriers to getting a traditional dermatologist appointment, including high cost and long wait time. According to Shah, followers frequently DM him with photos of their skin conditions, asking for medical advice.
Those barriers to in-person care are also keeping interest in telemedicine high, even after pandemic reopenings. A February 2022 McKinsey study found that 40% of survey respondents said they would keep using telemedicine after the pandemic, and 60% said they find it more convenient than in-person visits.
But doctors tend to be more wary of telemedicine than consumers: Fifty-five percent of patients say they are “much more satisfied” with telehealth than in-person visits, while only 32% of physicians believe it can improve the patient experience, according to the McKinsey study.
“A lot of doctors and a lot of people in the industry are skeptical of change,” said Dr. Shah, about the medical industry. “In every industry, anytime there’s technological disruption, people that are part of the heritage version of that industry are going to be skeptical.”
But, he said, he’ll maintain his high standards for the companies he works with.
“You need to be a good fiduciary of care. [Telemedicine] is a business, but it’s also health care.” Dr. Shah noted the need to “balance” these two aspects in order to make sure the standard of care is not harmed.
For its part, Cortina has a network of in-office dermatologists it refers people to if their condition is not appropriate to be treated online, such as one that could need a biopsy. The platform currently treats only five conditions: acne, rosacea, hyperpigmentation, men’s hair loss and women’s hair loss. Dr. Maclellan said there are “roughly 3,000” conditions that could be treated virtually, and the company plans to up the number in the future.
Future social content from the startup will be focused on education, said Dr. Shah, who is initially creating content for the platform on the differences between rosacea and acne.
Maclellan has high hopes for teledermatology, which he said is geared toward making treatment of smaller skin issues more efficient in order to keep more in-person appointment times open for those who need them. “Over the next five years, we will see extreme growth potentials within the telemedicine space, especially the teledermatology space, because it is such an image-based field of medicine,” he said.