Two billion. That’s how many views health-related YouTube videos received in 2021. To that end, YouTube, the second-most visited website on earth, has partnered with the National Health Service to combat health misinformation. Part of the partnership and YouTube’s efforts is to create a “Health Shelf” that users can access for health-related content.
On a freezing cold Wednesday in January 2023, the YouTube Health team invited the U.K.’s leading healthcare influencers and creators to Google’s London HQ for a day of knowledge sharing and collaboration. The theme mirrored the mission of YouTube Health: “making high quality health information available to all,” which is certainly pertinent in an age of rampant ‘fake news’ that could risk dangerously inaccurate online health content.
Dr Vishaal Virani, YouTube’s head of U.K. health, led a day of panel discussions, talks and networking sessions and I took a number of key learnings:
1. People are increasingly turning to the internet as a trusted source of health information
In years past, people tended to go to their doctor first when seeking health advice or a diagnosis. But now that the internet is woven tightly into the fabric of our lives, and, let’s be honest, securing face-time with a clinician in primary care is harder than ever, most of us turn to our phones and laptops to find answers or solutions to our health-related concerns. YouTube’s data strongly supports this. In 2021 alone, 180,000 health-related videos were uploaded to the platform, and these videos were viewed an enormous two billion times. In a world in which we’re all accustomed to instant, on-demand access to information, the internet is filling the gaps left by a shortage of medical professionals and limited state-sponsored health education. But the accuracy and safety of online health information is tough to police, and the proliferation of misinformation is having real-world consequences. While somewhat contentious, to understand the severity of the threat posed by false health narratives, one only has to look at the link between Covid-19 misinformation and vaccine uptake.
2. To combat fake news, search demand must be met with reliable, accurate information
92% of online adults access YouTube and the average 18-34 year old spends 70 minutes each day watching YouTube content. This is an audience who are highly likely to search online for their health information, so rather than trying to reverse this trend, we should ensure that the content they are accessing is reliable, accurate and safe.
YouTube Health has multiple work streams to achieve this, presenting a blueprint that other content platforms may choose to follow. They are working very closely with NHS Digital on a “health shelf” so that health searches return official, validated videos from reputable sources first, which is definitely both complex and worthwhile – a combination that they aren’t afraid to lean into. They are also working with NHS England and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges to define content and quality standards.
3. Effective public health education requires an understanding of where and how different demographics consume information
YouTube is certainly working hard to become the number one source for reliable online health information and they are very clear in who their demographic are and the content required for meaningful behaviour change; but not every internet user is going to use solely YouTube to learn about health and wellbeing.
If online health misinformation is to be tackled effectively, it’s important to investigate where every demographic accesses content, and the manner in which they do so. This means that leading platforms including TikTok, Instagram and news media outlets are going to need to be brought onboard in the mission to replace misinformation with accurate, regulated content that is tailored and optimised for the consumption habits of that specific audience.
4. Cross-sector collaboration is essential
NHS and other health organisations have a wealth of health-related information and knowledge. However, they lack the knowledge, resources and experience of organisations like YouTube to put this information where it will be actively found by mass audiences. By leveraging partnerships like these, NHS organisations can exponentially amplify the reach of their top-quality health content. Influencer and creator partnerships are equally important here, as they enable health bodies to talk to engaged communities through figures that already have trust with large audiences. It’s also worth noting that collaborations can be mutually beneficial in more ways than one: for example, YouTube and other online content platforms have the potential to be an incredibly valuable internal education resource for healthcare organisations who need to train up staff members and educate their own workforces.
5. Viewers need to be engaged, not nagged
The most impactful education content is that which people actually want to watch. Videos that are monotonous, dated or lecturing do not perform well online, so creators need to work with audience tastes in order to succeed. We know that the most-watched content is fast-paced, well-edited, and built around real people and their stories: the best health content matches this and provides multiple forms of support for people at every stage of their health journeys whilst also building a community of people with shared health experiences.
Can YouTube balance entertainment and regulation?
I left this event feeling inspired and encouraged about the opportunities and potential for improving public health knowledge via online content. This outcome was undoubtedly a product of spending a whole day surrounded by talented creators and tech leaders who seemed to genuinely care about elevating the patient voice, democratising access to health knowledge, empowering patients on every step of their health journey.
This felt like a big tech project getting it right. Big tech has an interesting relationship with healthtech and many projects have come and gone, but Dr. Vishaal Virani and the YouTube Health team definitely acknowledge their responsibility and are building out the platform very aware of its power to reassure, educate and change behaviour in patients.
Achieving a fair balance of ambition and governance is not easy when you are innovating in healthcare technology and media, particularly at the pace YouTube Health seems to be achieving. It was therefore no surprise to learn that YouTube Health’s leadership is made of clinicians motivated and able to appreciate such a fine balance of information, engagement and regulation. Along with Dr Virani, Dr Garth Graham is a cardiologist and global head of YouTube Health and Dr Susan Thomas, once a geriatrician, is Google Health’s clinical director.
The challenge of regulating and moderating the huge volume of online health content must not be underestimated, but with sufficient investment and innovation it seems possible that accurate and reliable content can triumph. To do so, I believe that we will need to see continued collaboration and knowledge-sharing that spans the creator community, big tech organisations and healthcare providers, with a special emphasis on inclusion and community engagement.