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[Feature] Pharmacists turn to YouTube

Growing number online turn to pharmacists for “medicational” advice, but resistance rises to views on drug analysis

Lee Jee-ae, a 30-year-old office worker in Seoul who proclaims herself to be a health fanatic, has her own way of choosing medication: YouTube.

Type the Korean word for pharmacist -- “yaksa” -- on YouTube, and an endless list of videos showing broadcasters in white gowns providing medicinal information rolls out, she said.

YouTube is where Lee learned the maximum magnesium supplement intake a day is 350 milligrams, and that there are different expiration dates for different types of packets from a pharmacy.

“I trust their tips with all my heart,” Lee said.

The Pharmaceutical Stories From Pharmacist channel has over 219,000 subscribers on YouTube. (Screengrab from YouTube)
The Pharmaceutical Stories From Pharmacist channel has over 219,000 subscribers on YouTube. (Screengrab from YouTube)

“What these pharmacists have to share as health care experts carries much more value than the ‘supposedly this pill is good’ rumors between moms and online advertisements,” Lee said, adding that YouTube pharmacists are interactive and approachable.

Lee is one of a rapidly growing number of health-conscious subscribers on YouTube in Korea.

Channels with the most followers are Pharmaceutical Stories From Pharmacist, with close to 220,000 subscribers, and Yakkurt, with about 136,900 subscribers.

The former’s “The Supplements That Will Wreck Your Liver in Long Term” video has been viewed over 1 million times in three months. “Should You Take All of Your Supplement Pills in One Go?” has also proved popular. (The answer is no, it’s best to spread out the pills to minimize pressure on the stomach.)

As for Yakkurt, “Pharmacist’s Solution for Tiredness During Exam Season” and “What Painkillers Do Female Pharmacists Take for Period Cramps?” received enthusiastic viewer responses. 

The “Fail-Proof Probiotics Purchase Tip” video on the Meditainment channel has notched 76,000 views and the “Krill Oil and Omega 3 Comparison” video on Yakzzang TV has 29,000 views.

But is it safe to turn to YouTube for pharmaceutical advice?

According to the Korea Health Supplements Association, the domestic supplements market has seen continuous growth from 2016’s 3.5 trillion won ($2.96 billion) to 2018’s 4.2 trillion won. While demand is rising, there has not been a credible source to guide patients on what pills to take.

“Pharmaceuticals used with proper knowledge can enhance quality of life,” said Yakkurt in a phone interview with The Korea Herald. “But without correct knowledge, people can be wary of misusing or abusing supplements.” 

YouTube channel Yakkurt
YouTube channel Yakkurt

Yakkurt, preferring to go by his pseudonym, has been practicing at a pharmacy for over three years. He declined to reveal the name or location of his pharmacy, saying he does not wish to use his YouTube exposure to promote his business.

What motivated Yakkurt to step out of the typical boundaries of the pharmaceutical field and enter the world of video production was partly the lack of information available to the general public. It baffled him why patients would not consult nearby physicians or pharmacists, and concerned him that there was so much unconfirmed and incorrect health information that people followed blindly online.

“Many pharmacists constantly study and attend seminars to update our knowledge. But as we receive over a hundred patients a day, it seemed to be impossible to give each patient enough time,” said Yakkurt.

Prior to creating a video, Yakkurt says he consults many books on topics he deems relevant to viewers’ interests. “The most difficult part is keeping a balanced nuance,” Yakkurt said. In his videos, Yakkurt often repeats as a disclaimer that what he says is his personal opinion and should be taken with a pinch of salt.

But his views and pharmaceutical analyses are not always welcomed.

In April, Yakkurt took down a video with over 1 million views on how Ildong Pharmaceutical’s best-selling over-the-counter drug, multivitamin supplement Aronamin Gold, had lower levels of certain ingredients than a rival product.

The Aronamin series was the best-selling OTC drug for a third consecutive year in 2018, according to health care consulting firm IQVIA. The supplements brought in 66.3 billion won in sales in 2018 for Ildong.

In a phone interview with the Korea Herald, Ildong Pharmaceutical said that stronger drugs do not always guarantee better results, saying lower levels can be easier on the stomach for some, and that there was a limit to how much of a vitamin the body can absorb at one time anyway. It also argued that the two products were in a different category to each other, and so it was not appropriate to compare them directly. The firm officially complained to the YouTuber.

Yakkurt later took down the video, citing emotional stress and possible differences in drug preferences for each person. The pharmacist explained in a follow-up video that he was neither bribed nor coerced to delete the video.

“As I get more subscribers, I grow more cautious of everything I say,” Yakkurt said in the interview.

According to the Medical Service Act in Korea, medical personnel are banned from advertising medical services that may mislead, defame, exaggerate or conceal critical side effects. This is why pharmacist YouTubers stress in their videos that their pharmaceutical product reviews are not advertisements solicited by the firms.

YouTube channel Meditainment
YouTube channel Meditainment

The Korean Pharmaceutical Association says that it is impossible to control individual pharmacists’ creative expression, while also admitting there must be a certain consensus among pharmacists as to the quality and fairness of information they disseminate to the public.

“There is diversity in each pharmacist’s ideals. The medicines they consider worthy of discussion may vary, as do their philosophies for good patient treatment,” a representative from the KPA told The Korea Herald.

“We are not indifferent toward the YouTuber phenomenon. We admit there is a need to establish common ground on what we wish to achieve through YouTube activities. But we also believe it is impossible to suppress and control individual pharmacist’s YouTube creations.”

The KPA is mulling an opportunity in the future to gather the pharmacist YouTubers for a talk session where a rough consensus on YouTube contents can be reached.

And the KPA acknowledges that there are benefits inherent to YouTube.

“The complete capability and role of a pharmacist as the top pharmaceuticals experts have largely been shadowed by the public conception of a pharmacist as a drug store clerk with certification,” the KPA representative said. “There is benefit in YouTube interaction where a pharmacist can share his or her expertise more in-depth.”

As for quality control of pharmacist YouTubers’ output, the KPA representative said he believes in viewers’ discretion.

“If the content lacks professionalism, no one would watch.”

By Lim Jeong-yeo (