An Instagram page with over 2,85,000 followers claims that a newly wedded bride must go on 30-minute runs at least twice daily and drink green tea every morning before breakfast for weight loss. A bride can bleach their face, but no later than 15 days before the wedding. Run under the name of ‘healthytipspage’, the page is filled with AI-generated videos of characters that look like doctors, speaking in a manner no different from Siri.
The advent of AI doctors on social media is a fast-growing phenomenon that is evidenced by their high number of followers, sometimes as close to 5,00,000, or by scores of people commenting on their videos seeking medical advice.
RK is an owner of a similar Facebook page that doles out medical and nutritional advice. He is a pharmacist by profession. “I have more than 9 years of experience in the field, and have been advising my friends and family for many years,” he told Decode. RK scripts the videos himself, allocating a good three hours every day to just “researching” his claims. His research is based on Google webpages such as Healthline and WebMD as well as other AI sites. “All the AI images and audio are copyrighted. So I feed them the lines once the script is ready and then create shorts or reels.”
According to RK, his friends’ encouragement made him start his page in hopes that more people could “benefit from his experience”. With now more than 10,000 followers, RK is ready to take his channel to the next level and consider advertising for his videos.
The debate surrounding the transformation and eventual booming of the Indian healthcare sector as a result of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not new. In fact, a NASSCOM analysis predicts a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 40 per cent from 2019 to 2025 within the industry. However, parallel to the conversation surrounding doctors integrating AI into procedures, another social media epidemic has brought fame to non-medical practitioners disguised as AI doctors. The tips that these AI doctors give out are often medical misinformation.
Modus Operandi of an ‘AI Doctor’
Decode looked at over ten such AI doctors' pages on social media. From weight loss tips to claims on how to “get teeth as white as Modi’s”, these pages average 1,00,000 to 3,00,000 views on each video. For instance, ‘Gharelu Health Tips’ or @doctorji__ai_sb’s first video on July 2, suggests that women can regulate their menstrual cycles by consuming jaggery with fennel seeds. Now only two months later, his profile boasts 2.4 million views on some reels.
Similarly, RK claims that although his videos resemble the faces of doctors, his scripts stick to strictly “harmless” nutritional inputs. “My videos are usually about what to eat or drink and the nutritional value of our daily intake.” Pleased with the feedback on his videos, RK says he continues because now more people than just his friends and family can learn a tip or two about “home remedies”.
RK admits that he does not consult any doctor or medical professional to verify his scripts and feels certain of his knowledge of medicines and healthy habits. “My tips don’t have any side effects and I think it is safe to follow,” RK claims. He picks uncomplicated topics that have abundant advice pre-existent on the internet.
When asked about whether other ‘AI doctors’ have reached out to him for collaboration, RK says he is aware of how successful some of these channels are–but he would not take on any collaborations. “I was not looking for followers when I started but now I want to see how it goes,” he added.
From medical misinformation to bot followers
While some pages predominantly speak about the nutritional benefits of common fruits and vegetables, others suggest the ‘best times in the day’ to have food items. However, the most recurrent video topics are ‘how-to’s for weight loss and clear skin.
Mohit runs another page called ‘HealthMaster’ that recently hit 90,000 followers. His motivation to run the page was to put home remedies he uses himself to test. So far, he apparently has received positive feedback, with two of his videos having 8.4 and 5.2 million views. Both videos talk about a ‘besan gold facial’ that Mohit claims is his wife’s favourite. Professionally a medicine delivery executive, Mohit usually googles home remedies on specific topics that people around him are talking about and then imposes them on AI images.
An Instagram page with 3,95,000 followers argues we must not take medicines with cold water or pick up phone calls with our left ear. Another video warns against eating momos (or dumplings) because they have bleach in them, which can cause stomach rupture. In a video that claims drinking cold water can shrink your intestines, several comments pile up asking for specific health-related concerns.
Gharelu Health Tips’s video on conjunctivitis has gone viral. In the video, the AI doctor claims we could splash honey water in our eyes and place sliced potatoes on our potatoes to get relief. Some comments from users can be seen making requests for the next video, to which the owner responds, “It was necessary to address rising eye flu cases, but will get to your request in the next one.”
ENT surgeon, Dr Sayan Hazra said there is no evidence to suggest that splashing honey water in your eyes helps with conjunctivitis. Dr Hazra also rubbished ‘healthytips's notion that “eating paneer raw can reduce risk of cancer.”
According to a page called ‘secrethealthtips’, eating food wrapped in newspapers can cause cancer. This is despite the video carrying disclaimers like, “Note: These tips are general in nature, and it's always a good idea to consult a healthcare professional or expert for personalized advice.”
With 8.4 million views on the video, positive feedback can be seen outpouring in the comments section. Although the page was started in June 2023, it already has over 3,80,000 followers. Yet, most of the videos have no more than 10 comments. Looking at the engagement on the profile, some accounts carried 0 posts but over 2000 ‘following’, whereas others appeared as broken links. Some videos use hashtags used by bot accounts such as #DMToGetFeatured (frequently used by accounts that generate followers using third-party apps).
In fact, Mohit made his first upload 9 weeks ago, but to get to 90,000 followers, Mohit used what are called ‘shoutout pages’. You can write to pages on Instagram that usually buy bot followers from third-party apps, and then upload pictures of users with hashtags such as #shoutout4instagram. Their MO is simple–buy followers, and ask users for pictures to feature on their page, so that once the user has enough follower gain, they can re-feature the shoutout page. Most of Mohit’s videos also have ads that show up on the screen for cricket and other sports betting websites.
Similarly, another account by the name of ‘health_knowledge’ frequently posts advertisements of web series and movies to generate hashtags of such content. They also share comedy sketches, music videos and other promotional content under the hashtag #grow2viral.
Some videos clearly use nationalist and/or religious undertones to deliver the message. A ‘healthytips’ page with 200k followers starts videos saying “If you want white teeth like PM Narendra Modi’, or ‘If you want to stay fit at an older age like Narendra Modi’, invoking a sense of immediate connect with the audience that they respond to. However, the exponential growth does not justify an average of 5-10 comments on what looks to be a widely followed page.
Once again, the first video on this page was uploaded on 25 May, making a majority of these pages only a couple of months old.
Doctors anti doom-scrolling on Internet
Avni Kaul, a Delhi-based nutritionist, wellness coach and Founder of Nutri Activania, recommends her patients consult a professional who can guide them on where to look for correct information along with of course counselling patients with their trained input. “Patients instantly go on Google to search what their symptoms are because they’re looking for quick fixes. But they end up feeling more stressed about their illnesses,” Kaul said.
According to Dr Tejaswi Sethi, a Fortis Gynaecology Specialist, people find the internet at their fingertips and that has created unusual belief systems in their minds. “We live in a time of information overload, that patients come to us with supposed diagnosis sometimes.” She equates the effects of AI doctors to when WebMD was first introduced. “The Internet gives you broad ideas of medical concepts based on your search. It cannot replace the expertise of a doctor who’s had over 9+ years in training.”
‘Tips’ on how to “help people prevent heart attacks or strokes” is another prevalent video topic for these profiles. An account claimed, “In case of a heart attack, one must ask the patient to cough and then put pressure on the heart and perform CPR.” While Dr Keka Mandal, Gynecologist/Obstetrician agrees that CPR needs to be performed during a case of heart attack, there is a clear understanding that only professionals with proper training can perform CPR.
Dr Lavanya Aiyengar, a Hyderabad-based general practitioner, cautions that most nutritional advice on the internet resembles home remedies that grandmothers would suggest. “It’s always best to run it by a doctor before making big changes in your lifestyle.” Weight loss tips are widely searched on the internet already. “To make it worse, AI is being used to perpetuate sick stereotypes preexistent in our culture. They advertise false information by pretending to be a doctor or a friend,” Aiyengar warned.
AI-generated content could do serious harm to patients or nudge people towards harmful behaviour when they are looking for support. The information overload online makes it difficult for patients to see right from wrong, whereas doctors can direct them to accurate information. A simple Google search would generate hundreds of tips and tricks for weight loss and fat-burning supplements. “These accounts are taking advantage of weight anxieties to generate content the viewers want to see,” Kaul said.
Dr Ruchi Tandon, a pregnancy specialist disagrees with notions that these AI doctors are disseminating. “There is no truth to the claim that you cannot drink tea or coffee when on your periods, or that a newly wedded bride should eat more greens than others,” Tandon said.
The biggest risk with these AI doctors is that the source of the information is never disclosed. The makers of these pages dub these as experiments to grow online, marketing a sum of human knowledge as reliable medical information. None of these pages have a human face to their name, nor do they disclose their actual job descriptions. In fact, even for this story, the two profile owners that we spoke to requested anonymity.
“I provide a warning in every video that people with real issues should go to doctors and not rely on my videos. Plus, people commonly Google remedies on the internet, so I am essentially giving the same advice, just on Instagram,” Mohit retorted. However, Mohit’s choice to remain behind a computer-generated image is guided by the fact that he is not a doctor professionally and does not want to “misguide his viewers”.
Many of the AI doctor page makers include these highlighted warnings about speaking to a doctor before following content advice. But these disclaimers don’t necessarily carry much weight for people who might be paying attention to medical information that is consistent with their beliefs. “In the end, it all boils down to marketing. Even if you don’t have the right credentials,” Kaul added.
Vacuum of Regulatory Mechanisms
Manisha Kapoor, CEO and Secretary General at the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) clarified, "Health product and service delivery is not under ASCI's jurisdiction. This is something that the Medical Council of India and the Health Ministry would need to look at and decide whether can be permitted."
Earlier, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) revised its influencer advertising guidelines to place additional responsibility on advertising content of health and finance influencers.
ASCI’s guidelines pertain to advertising content, where a brand product or service is being promoted directly or indirectly, and there is a material connection between the brand and the influencer. Thus, influencers that endorse products on health and nutrition must hold and disclose relevant qualifications such as medical degrees or certifications in nursing, nutrition, dietetics, physiotherapy, psychology, etc., depending on the nature of the advice provided.
However, Kapoor maintains that beyond regulating advertisements for health products, any matters of "patient care" become a question for the government. This points to a regulatory vacuum, permitting an unchecked growth of AI doctors.
Do you always want to share the authentic news with your friends?