Accurate sexual health information on TikTok? It’s this doctor’s mission

UCLA Health’s Dr. Russell Johnson aims to break down stigma, one video at a time.
Doctor in scrubs with phone
Dr. Russell Johnson educates TikTok audiences on HIV and sexual health. (Photo by Milo Mitchell | UCLA Health)

In a TikTok video with more than 3 million views, Russell Johnson, MD, explains diagnosis codes – why a patient sees them in their health care portal, the purpose they serve and how they can sometimes be stigmatizing.

For example, he says in the video, the code “high risk homosexual behavior,” is often used by doctors to order labs and provide justification to insurance for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medications.

Personally, Dr. Johnson, a UCLA Health medicine-pediatrics and HIV physician, says he avoids using that specific code because it is very triggering for many patients – suggesting that their sexual orientation is a medical condition.

It’s possible to request to have that code removed, he says, and have more appropriate codes assigned. In the case of PrEP a less stigmatizing code like “exposure to HIV,” better facilitates insurance coverage for the service.

With the increasing trend of people consuming information on social media platforms, Dr. Johnson has gained a popular following as an HIV and sexual health expert on TikTok. He breaks down complex research advances like CRISPR gene editing treatments for HIV, and discusses topics he encounters frequently at his clinic, such as HIV PrEP and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Despite the spread of misinformation, people continue to look to apps like TikTok for health advice. According to a recent survey, approximately one-third of Gen Zers reference TikTok for health information. One in five check the social media platform before seeing their doctor when seeking treatment for a health condition.

TikTok holds great potential for educating audiences, Dr. Johnson says. He aims to connect with them by exuding positivity, humor and expertise in his videos.

Starting out

The idea to start the TikTok channel was sparked by conversations with a mentor, Neal Baer, MD, a pediatrician and Emmy nominated writer, while Dr. Johnson was attending Harvard Medical School’s Media and Medicine certificate program in 2021.

At the beginning, however, “I didn't know what I was doing [on TikTok],” Dr. Johnson said. “The first post I made [about HIV PrEP] was terrible by my current standards – but it quickly garnered 10,000 views, and that let me know there was an eager audience.”

More on HIV education at UCLA Health 

Over the last year, he has found his stride using a combination of education and humor to tackle taboo topics, fact-check misconceptions and break down barriers surrounding sexual health. While funny voiceovers or trending dances can convey some of these messages, “people [may] have more specific questions,” he says. “I’ve moved into longer form videos to answer those.”

He has amassed more than 30,000 followers and has received comments from viewers saying they went on PrEP because of the information in his videos.

"Dr. Johnson’s TikTok videos destigmatize sexual health and provide accurate information to people who may be reluctant to have these discussions with their health care providers,” said Amy Weimer, MD, medical director of the UCLA Gender Health Program. “It is inspiring to realize the positive impact he has had on the health and lives of so many."

Yet Dr. Johnson emphasizes to his viewers the importance of seeking professional medical advice from a board-certified physician.

Man with scrubs in front of hospital entrance
Dr. Russell Johnson (Photo by Milo Mitchell | UCLA Health)

"[Social media] doesn't replace getting evaluated by a physician," he says.

He himself provides primary care for adults at risk for and living with HIV at the UCLA CARE Center, along with primary and immediate care for children and adolescents at Santa Monica 16th Street Internal Medicine & Pediatrics.

Creative and educational

In his posts, Dr. Johnson strives to let his personality to shine through to connect with audiences on a personal level, such as in one video where he is rollerblading on the beach while describing the top five symptoms of human papilloma virus (HPV).

“That’s what has been so great about social media, having fun being creative, but also educating,” he says.

And while Dr. Johnson understands that many people face barriers to health care, he hopes the information he shares can help his followers formulate questions to ask their physicians or even access care.

He plans to create a series of posts on how to access HIV care through the federal Ryan White HIV/AIDS program and other resources.

“The idea is to empower viewers to take action in ways specific to their situation to advocate for their health,” he says.

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