It’s not every day the student knows more than his teachers, but for 27-year-old Joel Bervell of Seattle, Washington, that has increasingly been the case.
Bervell is a medical student studying at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He’s gained national recognition for his viral TikTok channel, where he points out racial disparities in medicine.
“I really love teaching and explaining, and that’s what I’ve been able to do on my TikTok videos,” Joel Bervell said.
Bervell was recently awarded a $25,000 grant for his efforts on TikTok. He’s also been named TikTok’s 2021 top Voice of Change among other notable accolades.
Bervell says he’s always had a curious mind and enjoys learning and helping others. He comes from a family where his mother works as a hospital administrator, and his father is a civil engineer. Bervell aspires to become an orthopedic surgeon.
“I fell in love with the types of procedures and the people in it as well,” he said.
Bervell graduated from Yale University and was one of the first Black medical students at Washington State University. During his studies, he realized a glaring gap between what he was being taught and the realities on the ground. He noticed a disconnect between medical science and how it translates to people of color. His observation was most evident while studying oximeters.
An oximeter is a device that measures the oxygen saturation of the blood and pulse rate. The device proved to be less accurate in individuals with darker skin, the New England Journal of Medicine found.
“For me, it was a moment where I said, how come we don’t know about this, especially when this could affect so much of the population, myself included,” Bervell said.
Bervell used the disparity to launch his first myth-busting TikTok video in December 2020, which went viral. In November 2022, the FDA held a meeting to discuss issues related to the oximeter.
“That video ended up blowing up, and the comments were from physicians, nurses, patients, and people saying things like, I’ve never heard about this before,” Bervell said.
The floodgates were opened for Bervell’s TikTok channel. He released a series of videos focused on racial bias in medicine.
“I started making more videos about this racial bias in medicine series and really started to realize people really didn’t know about any of these things I took for granted while studying medicine,” Bervell said.
In addition to raising awareness about health care disparities, Bervell uses his popular platform to inspire future generations of Black medical professionals. He has produced videos on the need for more Black doctors and why a deep chasm exists between the number of Black doctors compared to other racial groups.
“We can’t ignore the history and the exclusion specifically of Black physicians and other physicians of color when it comes to medicine,” Bervell said.
In one of his videos, he explains the limited number of Black doctors traces back to the 1910 Flexner Report. According to Medical Page Today, the report laid the framework for modern medical schools and is partially responsible for the disproportionately low number of Black physicians.
Abraham Flexner “provided criteria to standardize and improve medical schools, forcing many institutions to close that didn’t have the resources to implement more rigorous instruction,” MedPageToday explained.
“What ended up happening is he closed all but one medical school that trained women in the United States and almost all the institutions that trained Black physicians,” Bervell said.
Bervell’s popularity on TikTok earned him more than 624,000 followers and more than 100 million views. His videos also caught the attention of the White House, where he is a member of the health care leaders in social media roundtable for the Office of Public Engagement. In addition, TikTok brought him on to help with its diversity and inclusion initiatives.
When he’s not fulfilling roles associated with health care and racial disparities or studying to become an orthopedic surgeon, he spends time mentoring aspiring medical students. He also works on a nonprofit he started with his siblings more than a decade ago. His nonprofit Hugs For helps children in Africa.
“I started it in middle school in honor of my grandma, to raise school supplies, medical supplies and sports equipment for children in Ghana, West Africa, which is where my parents are from,” Bervell said.
Despite the overwhelming positive feedback his TikTok videos receive, Bervell says voices like his need to drown out people blind to disparities in medicine. Columnists like Heather Mac Donald are one of the voices Bervell is focused on drowning out.
In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Mac Donald claimed, “public and private research funding is being redirected from basic science to political projects aimed at ‘dismantling white supremacy’ in medicine. The result will be declining quality of medical care.”
Bervell spends more of his time focused on the positive impact his videos are making. He recalled a post about acral lentiginous melanoma, a type of skin cancer that appears on the palms or soles of feet.
“I posted a video about how you can recognize it on darker skin. A woman reached out to me and said, ‘I saw your video online, and I went to get my mole checked out, and it turned out to be precancerous,'” Bervell shared.
He went on to share how the TikTok user thanked him. “Thank you for letting me know of what it could possibly look like in someone that looks like me,” Bervell continued with delight.
Bervell says he plans to continue his advocacy work. He is expected to graduate from medical school in 2024.