How a medical student (and TikTok star) is revolutionizing the future of the health care system: 'A lot of medicine is still crude'

·6-min read

As if juggling schoolwork, employment, volunteering, content creation and art weren’t enough, Joel Bervell can now add “TikTok’s medical myth buster” and “medical school revolutionary” to his resumé.

The Ghanian-American 26-year-old earned an impressive amount of academic honor as a third-year medical student at Washington State University, founded and led multiple mentorship groups to empower underrepresented students and mastered a sort of warmth that’s rare in medical professionals. He’s even a photographer whose gorgeous work hangs with precise symmetry on a gallery wall behind his desk.

You may know Bervell from social media, where he’s garnered hundreds of thousands of followers across platforms and a feature on the elite TikTok Discover List.

“I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there, but I think there’s also information that people don’t know about, that can help them … get better control of their health,” he told In The Know in an interview. “I highlight untold stories of marginalized patients, specifically people from BIPOC communities, about their health care experiences. I also share my life as a medical student.”

His video series “Racial Biases in Medicine” not only educates his followers on damaging prejudices that can seriously harm people of color, but it is leading to real change.

“People don’t realize [racial biases] begin way before you get to the doctor. It starts when [future doctors] are in medical school and the way [they] are trained to think about different issues,” he said.

Bervell said that in his first year of medical school, he was learning about cyanosis — a medical problem in which skin turns blue — and realized his dark skin was just not going to do that.

“What’s going to happen to patients who have darker skin or are Black like me if they have poor circulation or inadequate oxygenation of blood? I had this internal debate — do I raise my hand and ask this question?” he asked. “Would I look like that kid that’s just always thinking about weird things all the time?”

His instructor answered the question — you can look at their skin pallor and their mucous membranes, and so on. There’s an answer, but none of these future doctors would have learned about it if Bervell hadn’t been there to ask it.

“Medicine, right now, is not a diverse field,” he said. “So these populations that come from different backgrounds aren’t in the medical field, aren’t able to learn about these things, aren’t able to pass that information on to the communities where they grew up.”

Bervell found instances of these racial biases are disturbingly common.

For example, he explained that the pulse oximeter, a medical device that measures your blood oxygen saturation levels, is especially crucial in the COVID-19 era as doctors monitor shortness of breath.

“It helps you understand if your cells are getting the oxygen that you need right now,” he said. “Typically, you want it to be in the 98 to 100 percent range, but in darker skin, it can overestimate that number.”

If a person of color goes to the doctor short of breath, the pulse oximeter may incorrectly say their blood oxygen levels are fine, which can lead their physician down a path to misdiagnosis. It can also impact how much treatment health insurance will cover.

Though research about this has existed for decades, it wasn’t until Bervell brought this up while speaking to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that the agency added a warning for pulse oximeters to the website.

“I’m not saying it was just my talk there [that made the change happen], but that’s an example of the kind of systemic impact I want to have,” he said. “When you actually start changing institutions to realize these things exist, so that they can change the laws they have to keep patients safe and create a more efficacious, equal system.”

He said he initially wanted to be a veterinarian, but after interning at Seattle Children’s Hospital in high school where he worked with kids in the dialysis ward, he fell in love with the way doctors fostered relationships with the young patients. That warmth pervades the way Bervell addresses his TikTok audience — with patience, care and a genuine interest in making the world a better place.

He’s not sure what kind of medicine he’d like to focus on yet — whatever rotation he’s in at the moment seems to grab his attention – but he seems interested in pediatrics, orthopedics and surgery.

His goal is to revolutionize the way medicine is being taught, through his social media presence and his medical career, so that every unit addresses possible racial disparities.

“There is so much that we don’t know yet. While we’ve come a long way — we can put a man on the moon, we can do a heart transplant — a lot of medicine is still crude,” he said. “We still use these kinds of backwards, outdated sources. A lot of this comes from research that was done in the slavery era, which is crazy to think about, but that’s truly how it is.”

Bervell’s decision to take his TikTok from comedic takes on trends to more serious educational content, though he still loves accessible language and the occasional pop culture reference, is shaking up the medical community.

“Someone came up to me and said … I love your content on TikTok. We ended up talking about health disparities for, like, an hour,” he said. “She worked at a medical tech lab and said she shows all the doctors at her hospital my TikToks and they’d actually made changes in their system because of my posts … in terms of making sure that when Black patients come in, they have an option of knowing that their race will be taken into account.”

Ultimately, Bervell just wants to provide a place where people can learn enough that they question how our societal systems work.

“To know that people are taking their health into their own hands because they saw a video of mine and were like, maybe I should check this out … to me, that is the best feeling. Being able to have a broad impact,” he said.

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If you enjoyed this story, read more about TikTok historian Kahlil Greene.

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