21.08.2020 | Health Strategy

The rise of influencer marketing in healthcare

By Daniel Ghinn

What is influencer marketing in healthcare?

Ever since the phrase “Digital Opinion Leader” was first introduced to the medical world in 2012, much has been written and said about the influence of healthcare professionals (HCPs) on social media.

This is important because, as our interviews with Digital Opinion Leaders suggest, these influential healthcare professionals are playing a vital role in the advancement of care in their areas of specialty.

But what has been intriguing to observe is the growing number of HCPs who are now playing a role as sponsored influencers. With perhaps a different set of motivations to the medical Digital Opinion Leaders we have been studying, these professionals are developing their online networks and commercial brands are using the HCPs’ influence to target product advertising to their professional peers, as well as to consumers and patients.

How nurse influencers promote brands online

Sarah Flanagan, or Nurse Sarah, as she calls herself online, is a nurse practising in the US, who uses TikTok – where she has more than 65,000 followers – to talk frankly about life on the front lines of healthcare. She also tells the world how much she loves FIGS Scrubs.

Sarah’s Instagram following has grown rapidly to more than 62,000 at the time of writing this. Her dialogue from the front lines of patient care capture some of the highs and lows of nursing. In a recent moving Instagram post, she said that caring for dying patients during the pandemic “…feels like some of the most important work that I have ever done as a nurse.⁣”

Nurse Sarah is also using Instagram to play a role as a sponsored social media medical influencer. Brands send Flanagan products to try out, or develop a longer-term relationship with her in return for product placement in her content. In her interview with the New York Post, she describes how FIGS sends her new scrubs every month in return for her promotional support.

But FIGS is not the only brand to have discovered the power of influencer marketing in healthcare. In one post, Flanagan talks about how drinking Som has helped her sleep better, and offers tips for sleeping when on night shift, before declaring that the product was sent to her for evaluation.

In another post, which is shared as a paid partnership with Skout Organic, Nurse Sarah shares a series of photos of her enjoying organic protein bars.

Katy is a pediatric nurse practitioner in California, with more than 43,000 followers on Instagram. As well as posting frequently about life as a nurse, Katy’s influence online supports product promotion for brands including plant-based meals company Purple Carrot.

Last year Katy hosted a series of promotional giveaways with companies including Personal Planner, which makes customised planners.

Are nurse brand influencers Digital Opinion Leaders?

Are nurse influencers like Sarah and Katy Digital Opinion Leaders? At CREATION.co, we developed a series of metrics for considering how to qualify a Digital Opinion Leader based on a set of measurable indicators. On many of those indicators, which include social media presence, peer or public following, and relevance of content, the nurse influencers discussed above would certainly qualify – for the brands that sponsor them.

One of our measures, that distinguishes Digital Opinion Leaders for a particular context, is whether they are trusted online by their HCP peers. For our work in identifying scientific thought leaders online, this is a key measure that defines the relevance of the Digital Opinion Leaders among their scientific peers.

But if our broad classification of HCP Digital Opinion Leaders could include nurse influencers like Sarah or Katy as well as scientific experts (such as Dr. Anirban Maitra, a pancreatic cancer researcher who we profiled in our analysis of online HCP conversation in pancreatic cancer), then it is important to distinguish the context in which any kind of HCP could be considered a Digital Opinion Leader, and why.

Comparison of influencer marketing in healthcare

Let’s compare these two kinds of Digital Opinion Leaders. For now I will identify two groups, “Scientific DOLs” and “Brand Ambassadors”, and I’ll make some very broad generalisations.


DOL category Scientific DOL Brand Ambassador
Scientific credentials Usually high (senior role, published, trials) Not usually high
Most active channels Likely to include Twitter, Sermo, blogs Likely to include Instagram, TikTok
Who they influence Peers; people with similar special interests Younger people; public; peers on these channels (to some extent)
Use social media for Peer learning and collaboration; developing their profile. Influence; fun; engagement; developing their profile.


In practice, the range of classifications for Digital Opinion Leaders is almost limitless, and there are exceptions to the generalisations above, of course. Not all the broad categorisations apply to all HCPs: some doctors with strong scientific credentials are on TikTok, playing an important role in health advocacy and education among TikTok’s demographic (the vast majority of TikTok users are well under the age of 30, whereas most Twitter users are older). Austin Chiang, MD, for example, is a professor and gastrointestinal doctor who has more than 270,000 followers on TikTok.

What do traditional DOLs think of influencer marketing? 

How do traditional HCP Digital Opinion Leaders see this trend in influencer marketing among HCPs? Mark Lewis, Director of GastroIntestinal Oncology with Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, and one of the most influential US Digital Opinion Leaders in the field of pancreatic cancer, recently posted a lighthearted reflection on how doctors at medical school are lured into promotional contracts on social media. His tweet sparked comments from other physicians who reflected on the “horror” of promoting brands on Instagram.

Find the right collaboration model for your DOL

My colleague Jamie and I were recently presenting a workshop on understanding online HCPs to an international client team of more than 100 medical colleagues. A member of the client team reminded his colleagues that as we learn from HCPs online, we all need to focus on what is relevant to them, not simply try to push our own agenda on them.

This reflects the view expressed by New York based Medical Oncologist, Dr Alyson Ocean, too: when I asked her about the role of industry engagement with HCPs online she described how partnership with industry can help physicians with some of their goals such as raising awareness and patient advocacy.

I believe this is such an important point when it comes to considering Digital Opinion Leaders. There is a place for industry and HCPs to collaborate, and it must be beneficial to patients and built around the interests and passions of the HCP.

To learn more about CREATION.co’s work identifying, profiling and partnering with HCP Digital Opinion Leaders, get in touch or watch our webinar ‘Digital Opinion Leaders are the new Key Opinion Leaders’.

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Meet the Author

Daniel Ghinn

Daniel has been at the helm throughout the company’s life since 1998. His rich expertise in working with pharmaceutical businesses has enabled CREATION to build business solutions that fit our clients’ needs.

Daniel is married to Jo, has three children, a cat, a dog, 28 fish, and 160,000 bees.

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