Some influencers provide information about medical content on Instagram. But it's not just the information that is sometimes wrong.

A black stethoscope lies on a red background.

A stethoscope does not make a doctor: Beware of doctor games on Instagram Photo by: imago

SEDAN cup | Doctors' surgeries are full. You often have to wait months for an appointment with a specialist. And when you Google your symptoms, the pixels on the screen form a cancer diagnosis. Taking care of your own health is often quite annoying. Medfluencers want to counteract this.

Medfluencers, or “medical influencers,” are internet personalities who use their channels to give medical advice, clarify health myths, and talk about everyday practice. It’s actually not a bad idea to provide information about medical content in an easily accessible form. After all, specialized books have a much higher access threshold than a well-packaged short video.

But the content is completely out of control and there are often conflicts of interest, open or hidden. It is difficult for laymen to distinguish between who is reputable and who is not. This is the case simply because many people call themselves “Doc” even though they do not have a PhD.

One such Medfluencer is 25-year-old Alina Walbrun (@docalina), who now has 253,000 followers on Instagram. She is actually still studying medicine. But she has already put the title “Doc” in her username as a precaution. It is not protected. In her profile picture she poses with a stethoscope. Her intention is to educate people with her content, as she herself said in an interview.

The wrong medicine even for the sick

A topic that interests her is cortisol. In Instagram videos, she lists symptoms of elevated cortisol levels: insomnia, restlessness, or hair loss. Her followers diagnose themselves and follow her nutritional advice. Drinking coffee in the morning increases cortisol levels, and certain foods, says Walbrun, reduce them. For example, the matcha powder she offers in her online shop for 49 euros.

“This is something that really bothers you from a professional point of view. For the vast majority of the foods mentioned here, there is not even the slightest evidence from human studies,” says Martin Smollich. He is head of the working group on pharmaceutical nutrition at the Institute of Nutritional Medicine at the University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein and has already debunked some of Alina Walbrun’s health myths on Instagram.

This doesn't even help people who actually have elevated cortisol levels. “It is then even more dangerous to follow Dr. Alina's recommendations and take random dietary supplements,” says Smollich. An elevated cortisol level could have serious causes, such as an adrenal tumor. “Her content is completely misleading from a medical and scientific point of view.”

But that is not the only reason why Doc Alina is controversial. When she agreed with her podcast partner in June that conventional medicine was better off keeping patients sick in order to profit from them, a shit storm broke out. A petition demands that the ethics committee check whether she is suitable to pursue a PhD at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich.

Alina Walbrun removes critical comments from her videos and blocks users, the petition's signatories complain. “Her behavior should not be rewarded with a PhD from a renowned university like LMU,” the petition says. A video the university recorded with Walbrun in the past was removed from LMU's Instagram page after much criticism.

“Walbrun is completely unfit for medical practice,” agrees Martin Smollich. “Anyone who says that a doctor wants to keep his patients sick for as long as possible has not understood the principle of medical financing in Germany. This opinion belongs to the family of conspiracy theories.” “In Germany you cannot save yourself from patients.”

But how can social media users distinguish serious content from that spread by, for example, Alina Walbrun? “Clear warning signs are promises of healing and our own sales interest,” says Smollich.

The ban on third-party advertising.

In addition to matcha powder, Walbrun also sells skin care products and collagen in her online shop, which cost between 70 and 80 euros. One product contains spermidine, for example: “According to our studies, this does not enter the body at all,” says Martin Smollich. No effect has been proven.

What can also cause confusion for consumers are the labels that appear under products, such as “clinically tested.” “‘Clinical research’ simply means testing on humans. But that doesn’t mean anything good came out of it. It may also have turned out that the product was ineffective or harmful.”

The label “Made in Germany” is also misleading, explains Gesa Schölgens from the Consumer Centre North Rhine-Westphalia. This is also one of Alina Walbrun’s products. “Colleagues checked this on the market. They examined products with the label and discovered that many of the ingredients actually come from Asian laboratories.”

It is not clear what exactly the label means for Walbrun products. But it does suggest quality and reliability, says Schölgens. The taz asked Alina Walbrun for an explanation, but had not received a reply by the time of going to press.

Another Medfluencer is Emi Arpa. She is a specialist in dermatology, so unlike Alina Walbrun she has a real PhD. She is followed by 480,000 people on Instagram. German celebrities regularly visit her practice and she is mentioned in various gossip podcasts. Anti-ageing is her focus.

Last year, Emi Arpa launched a skincare line called “Dr. Emi Arpa Fermented Formulations.” She now sells them at her own stand in Berlin’s KaDeWe department store. To promote it, she gave away free ice cream in front of the mall last week. Everywhere you look you can see “Dr. Emi Arpa.”

Also in the “Dr. Emi Drips” program are herbal teas that he offers in his practice. They contain vitamins, electrolytes and trace elements, are intended to detoxify or give strength and are hardly different from hangover teas.

Unnecessary luxury

“Medically, the administration of vitamins by infusion only makes sense if a severe deficiency has been previously proven, and not as a prophylactic measure. The need for vitamin C in particular can easily be covered by a normal diet,” explains Martin Smollich. Apart from the fact that one can overdose on vitamins, infusions cost between 150 and 200 euros and are an unnecessary luxury item, especially compared to a net of oranges. Smollich says: “It may be a dubious medicine, but of course it is still legal.”

It becomes problematic when influencer marketing makes health promises that are not allowed. This also includes the word “detox,” which Dr. Emi used for one of her drips. “Advertising with the word detox is prohibited. This is not legally defined, but there are several rulings from higher courts that say it is not allowed either in the name of the product or on the packaging,” says consumer advocate Gesa Schölgens. Otherwise, Dr. Emi has been very careful in her product descriptions.

“But what is actually more interesting is that Dr. Emi is a licensed physician,” Schölgens adds, “and this naturally raises the question of whether her products violate the so-called ban on third-party advertising, which prohibits doctors from using their name in conjunction with a medical professional title for commercial purposes. Advertising of one's own or third-party commercial activities or products related to medical work is also not permitted. “This is unprofessional and should be reported to the medical association.”

Emi Arpa also had no comment on the alleged violation of the third-party advertising ban as of press time. After pointing this out to the taz, she spoke out in an Instagram story on Tuesday about how her products “also work without [ihren Namen] She also started labeling videos in which she talked about skin care as “advertising.”

Collaboration: Pia Kollmann