Joel Bervell’s TikTok videos start much the same as any other 20-something content creator.
In one recent video, he looks directly into the camera with a serious expression in front of a black backdrop with music floating along in the background. What sets Bervell apart from other TikTokers is what comes next: “Today, the World Health Organization announced that monkeypox is an international public health emergency.”
Bervell then goes on to describe what symptoms to monitor for, particularly emphasizing what to look out for on darker skin tones. Within three days, the video racked up 3 million views.
Bervell is a medical student at Washington State University — the first Black medical student at the school. The lack of diversity reflects the wider medical industry: Only 5% of all U.S. physicians identify as Black or African-American. That number has changed little in the past 120 years.
Bervell and many of his peers worry that this lack of representation in the medical community can spill over into practice, leading to drastically worse outcomes for Black patients. His fears have been borne out in multiple investigations from the top medical journals of the world. The studies point out the problem but rarely provide a solution.
And that’s where Bervell’s content comes in. With his iPhone, LED ring light, simple editing skills and knowledge, he’s made it his mission to educate Black Americans about their health and he hopes it can help solve the issue of health inequality that plagues the community. Bervell began shooting the videos two years ago.
“I remember reflecting on things like the murder of Ahmaud Arbery,” Bervell says. “He was the same age as I was. And then, of course, there was the George Floyd protests, which I participated in myself. And those things made me want to use my voice.”
So Bervell decided to use his voice and his unique position as a Black medical student to highlight race-based health disparity. His first video was about pulse oximeters and how they could give faulty readings for people with darker skin. The video was a hit, garnering more than 500,000 views.
Bervell found an audience desperate to learn how to look after themselves, filling in the gaps that medicine had left open for centuries. According to a recent survey, one in 10 Americans turns to social media for health information.
Patients from non-white backgrounds in the U.S. suffer routinely due to unequal medical treatment, ranging from continuing problems with pulse oximeters to high mortality rates among pregnant women from Black communities.
Since he posted his first video, attention on Bervell’s accounts have skyrocketed. His videos regularly receive hundreds of thousands of views, sometimes millions. The content he produces is demonstrably saving lives: WHYY reported earlier this year that one woman found out she had a precancerous lesion on her foot and had it exorcized after watching one of Bervell’s videos.
She reached out to Bervell to thank him, something that has become common for the young medical student. The comments section under his videos are filled with praise for the work he does and thanks for alerting people to what to watch out for on their own bodies. Many also share personal stories of how they or a family member missed warning signs because they were not educated on what to look for.
“Sometimes I've even been stopped in the street for people to tell me that my videos have changed the way they think about themselves or the interaction with the health care system,” Bervell says. “And truly, it just stopped me in my tracks and it's humbling.”
Bervell has even caught the attention of the top physician in the country — U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy — with whom Bervell shot a TikTok video highlighting health care worker burnout during the pandemic.
“I really could never have imagined that I would start by posting on TikTok and would one day be sharing health information with the Surgeon General of the United States, by dancing to a song from Disney’s ‘Encanto,’” says Bervell. “But Dr. Murthy does have some really, really great dance moves.”
Bervell hopes to continue uploading content in the foreseeable future and attract more people to his videos to hear his advice and tips. However, churning out videos on social media is only a side project — he still must complete his medical education and hopes to go into orthopedics.
“Orthopedic surgery is one of the fields that actually has the least diversity overall,” he says.
It’s yet another area of racial disparity in health care that Bervell aims to highlight and change in the future. Judging by his impact on TikTok so far, the sky is the limit for Bervell’s work to fight inequality in medicine.
Resources to learn more about racial health inequality:
This article was originally published on July 18, 2022.
This segment aired on July 18, 2022.