Jay meets Doctor Mikhail Varshavski, a.k.a. “Dr. Mike”, at MIT where he takes part in a unique program focusing on social justice in the digital age. Dr. Mike discusses the evolution of his social media presence and shares how he uses entertainment as a way to teach people about medicine on social media.
Dr. Mikhail (MD) is a social media entrepreneur, TV medical expert, philanthropist, and physician and the most followed Doctor on social media. He stresses the importance of medical literacy and battles misinformation for audience of over 7 million social media subscribers.
Jay Ruderman: With over 7 million social media subscribers, Dr. Mike is one of the most famous doctors in the world. Today he’s joining All Inclusive.
Announcer: All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman: Hi, and welcome to All Inclusive. I’m your host, Jay Ruderman. Dr. Mikhail Varshavski, better known as Dr. Mike, is a family medicine physician, but you most likely recognize him from social media. He’s a social media entrepreneur, TV medical expert, philanthropist, and physician. Dr. Mike, thank you for joining me today.
Dr. Varshavski: Thank you so much. I appreciate it and very, very excited to be here.
Jay Ruderman: Now, you are now taking medicine to a new audience, with a fresh message, but when you opened your first Instagram account you had a very different purpose. What was that?
Dr. Varshavski: Yeah, so when I started my social media career, which it’s now became my career it’s crazy to say, I initially started to prove to folks that in medical school you don’t have to give up your life to study and practice medicine. It’s a very common stigma that’s out there that I think discourages some really bright minds from entering an important field that really lacks some creativity, some unique thinking. I thought that by showing people you can have a successful social life, a good family life, still do well in school, and be involved in a myriad of activities, I thought I could be that motivational driver to get a new set of minds to enter the field. I didn’t have a well thought out plan on how to make this happen because I wasn’t well versed in the social media space, but I learned and evaluated through each one of my actions and mistakes, which there were plenty of, of how to become better and more effective as a leader as someone who is both a professional yet very popular in the social media space. It’s been a crazy, crazy journey.
Jay Ruderman: When you first started, let’s dissect it a little bit. What were some of the mistakes that you ran into and what did you learn from that?
Dr. Varshavski: I think that I was good at creating and crafting my message, but I wasn’t an effective user of social media in order to get that message out there. In order for me to have learned this message and learn how to get my message out there, I had to practice what I preached. I had to lead by example. I had to start using social media. I had to see where I could do better. I think doctors really fall to the same issue, in that they may know all the possible diagnoses, they may know all the best treatment options, but if they don’t know how to get that message to the human sitting across from them, they fail in their mission. What I didn’t want to do is I didn’t want to fail in my mission to educate people about health, to educate about the field of medicine. How amazing it is and how you don’t have to believe the stigma that you have to give up your life in order to practice medicine. Through all of these situations where I could’ve improved, I then started improving. The only way I was able to do that is by evaluating where my mistakes were.
Jay Ruderman: Some of those mistakes were what?
Dr. Varshavski: Not being an effective leader. Not using the proper hashtags. Not spreading my message through collaboration, through networking. Because I used to look at folks who network often and view that as a negative thing, as if they were trying to manipulate people or get something from them. But what I later learned, and now I use very passionately, is the idea of influence needs to be instilled in all professionals, especially doctors. Now I study the field of influence and I see how I need to be able to influence my patients just as well as a marketer does because I need them to take their medicines. I need them to change their lifestyle habits to lead healthier lives. The only way I’m able to do that is to understand how social media works, is to understand how human psychology works, and through these methods that I’ve learned and failed in. When I say fail, I really just mean the lack of knowledge in those fields. I can do a better job in being a doctor and a social media leader.
Jay Ruderman: What platforms do you find are most successful for you to get your message across?
Dr. Varshavski: Initially when I did my social media journey, I started with Instagram because that was what was in front of me. Instagram is sort of a platform that you can only use short form videos and pictures to be successful. It’s very difficult to break down or simplify the nuance of a medical topic into a 10 second video, into a picture. So, my plan of action was to get people really interested in medicine by having them look at my Instagram pictures and then push them to YouTube, which is what I’m very passionate about now. Because on YouTube, I can make longer form content that is still very enjoyable, relatable, fun, but will still educate them. Actually, we’ve coined a term for this called edutainment.
Dr. Varshavski: I’m very passionate about this form of education because the people that need health education the most and where it’s most valuable is in the demographic between 18 to 24. If I want to reduce heart disease in an individual from a lifestyle habit standpoint, that is the age I need to start making my influence known. By making a YouTube video where I talk about why nutrition is important, why sleep is important, why exercise is important, that message should be reaching that demographic. If I want to reach that demographic, I have to meet them where they are, speak in a way that is relatable, and keep it fun. Because as much as I want to believe that all people want to learn about their health, I know that when you’re 18 the last thing that’s on your mind is how do I have the lowest chance of having a heart attack later in life? But, if it’s packaged with something within pop culture, and then they get a little bit of learning on the side, I know they’re much more likely to listen.
Jay Ruderman: The medical profession is very staid and conservative. You must’ve gotten some opposition from your colleagues. Like why are you going and talking about medicine on social media? People should be coming into my office and I should be examining them. How do you deal with that criticism?
Dr. Varshavski: That’s very true, and I was met with a lot of resistance when I first started my social platforms. I think that what I saw was an opportunity to reach a new demographic, and there wasn’t ever a playbook created. I wasn’t following anyone’s footsteps here because no one’s ever done this. I do consider myself a trailblazer in this space. If you look at leading doctors in the media world right now, take Dr. Oz for example, and you look at his YouTube presence, I outnumber it 10 to 1, and I’m a young doctor. I’ve only been practicing medicine out of residency for two years. So, to the people that had their critiques, I heard them. Because they were valid critiques. You need to keep your medical ethics as a first priority when you’re going into media, and not all doctors do this. In fact, most doctors who are successful in media have at one point corrupted their medical ethics. So, the concerns that people had of me entering the social media space were very valid. We need to make sure that doctors don’t corrupt their information.
Dr. Varshavski: But I was lucky here. The reason why I got my social media fame, at least the fuel to the fire that really stoked this, was I was named People magazine’s sexiest doctor alive. It’s a funny honor to have, but what that allowed me to do was to have a scandal. The model that I use for my education platform is come for the scandal, stay for the content. If people viewed me as the scandal, if they viewed me as the entertaining portion, they were coming to see a “sexy doctor”, they were coming in to see someone well dressed, who is a funny person but yet is in a professional space, I thought that could be the hook to get them to my channel but then I can educate them on a much deeper topic without needing to corrupt that topic. Because nowadays, if you’re on television, if you’re in any sort of media and you need to present medical information and you don’t have a hook, you end up corrupting that medical information. You end up making claims like this is a miracle supplement. This is the miracle cure. Really, that misguides my patients and I see people suffer as a result of that.
Jay Ruderman: This is completely different from like a WebMD or web based services where someone is coming in and seeking to interact with a doctor. This is you providing information about a particular medical advice or medical condition that’s just consumed by a wide audience.
Dr. Varshavski: I think what differentiates what I do from WebMD is that people really like to get information from a familiar face. In fact, this is something I’ve written about for the American Academy of Family Physicians, about how celebrity advice can get quite dangerous if they don’t have a medical background. Very commonly, with good intentions, celebrities will go through a medical condition and they’ll make a statement, one that they’re very passionate about because it’s affected them, and that statement doesn’t have full medical validity or it doesn’t apply to the generalized population and they’ll mislead a lot of people as a result of this. The reason why this happens is because if you look at human psychology, folks will trust a familiar face much more than they do a stranger. As much as I want to spend hours with a patient in my exam room, there’s only about 15 minutes of interaction that happens. So, who are they more likely to listen to? Myself or the figure that they spend hours watching on television day in and day out with their families?
Dr. Varshavski: I took that model that marketer use, usually to sell products, but I use that model to now sell the product of good health and quality, evidence based medicine. I said now that these folks know me from social media, I’m going to drive a message home that we need to do better as a society. Our healthcare system is broken. There are changes that need to be made. There’s information that we think we know but we need to correct because it’s a myth, and that happens quite often. Now, if I’m able to do that in a fun, relatable, easy to understand way, I think I’m doing my job as a family medicine doctor.
Jay Ruderman: You’re sort of ahead of your time, because we do live in an age of celebrity, where people become very famous very quickly, for different reasons. Because of how they look or because of a talent that they have, but you’re using it for good, which some celebrities come around to and champion a cause, but it seems like you started with the cause and then celebrity became part of that. No doubt, with 300 billion people on social media, which is a huge new phenomenon in our lives, there’s definitely an impact that doctors can have on their patients through social media. Let’s talk a little bit about what you talk about. Specifically now, you’re here at MIT, the Ruderman Family Foundation, through its Lead20 program, which is a group made up of people with and without disabilities advocating for disability rights and promoting social justice in our digital age. Let’s talk about disabilities. What have you talked about regarding people with disabilities and getting adequate medical treatment? Because I know that that is a huge issue in the disability community.
Dr. Varshavski: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right in that there’s 3 billion people on social media and they’re influencing everything from elections to business strategies. I think health professionals really need to listen to that because I think it’s the absence of quality physicians on social media that’s allowed so much information to propagate. I think that within the disabled community and those who suffer with disabilities or prosper with disabilities, they’re a group of individuals who really can use social media to benefit and champion the idea of training for physicians in this field. The reason I say that is because I myself lack training in this field. For example, I don’t have a lot of experience treating those with disabilities. I don’t have a patient population that has disabilities. In my medical school training, we had actors and actresses who are assimilated patients to help us learn how to give a proper prostate exam or a gynecological exam. What we didn’t have is to have a person come in who has a wheelchair or someone who’s blind or deaf or having autism to help us understand what etiquette should we follow? How should we be approaching these individuals? How can we do better as physicians so that we do come with a more welcoming stance?
Dr. Varshavski: It’s great that we may have physical accessibility, even though if you look at the medical space we don’t even do that well, but if we don’t have the human accessibility portion, we’re really failing our patients. Part of what I, after attending this conference, what I want to strive for and to get put out there into the world is doctors really should be more concerned about increasing access to a community of people that not only need healthcare but want healthcare, want to be advocates for change in healthcare. We’re not doing it simply because we’re uninformed. Something I can do on my social media platform by educating physicians how to act, educate myself so I can lead by example, because leading by example is the best thing we can do. Modeling is the way humans learn.
Dr. Varshavski: So, what I began to do, last week for example, and it’s going to be live at some point in the coming weeks, I interviewed a very popular YouTuber by the name of Molly Burke. She is actually blind, and she makes that a big part of her internet personality. When she was coming over to my studio to film, I did not know the best practices to make her feel comfortable. Should I be guiding her at the door? Should I not be guiding at all and her guide dog and her caretaker or assistant will help her with that? I didn’t know. So, what I did was to educate myself. I would log on to the American Academy of Family Physicians website and look at the great information that they have there. Unfortunately, that information does not disperse widely. Most doctors are completely unaware of how to handle themselves in this situation. I want it to be A, I learn what to do. B, I encourage my fellow doctors to pick up on this information. And then I put that information out there for the general public to know so we all get better and become more inclusive.
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Jay Ruderman: I think your service, what you’re doing could be hugely impactful for people with disabilities. I mean, we’re talking about a population that is largely segregated. Transportation. The ability to access medical treatment is a huge issue. I just came across a fact that the majority of people who are in a wheelchair when they’re examined by a doctor are not examined below the waist. So, they could be developing a medical condition that’s not even looked at. There’s a huge service that you could play in terms of getting the proper information out there so people can get treatment and preventative treatment before they develop these conditions. I think that that’s a huge thing that you could do.
Dr. Varshavski: I agree. I think that there’s really two parts to that situation. First being that we’re afraid of what we don’t know. Doctors that aren’t doing the exams properly may not have been educated in this. They don’t know what to do. Myself, as a person who has the ability and the reach on my social media platforms as well as my speaking engagements within the medical community, I can use this opportunity to give that education to improve these outcomes. Now, because I’m not part of a research institution I won’t be able to track how well I’m doing or how much I’m improving. The goal at the end of the day is if I give the education and people are listening, change will happen naturally because humans want to do better. Humans want to cooperate. People often refer to the Lord of the Flies myth, that if people are left on an island, kids are left on an island, they’re more likely to fight and become bad and evil. I disagree with that notion. I think when left to their own will humans are more likely to cooperate than compete. I hope by lending this education out there, putting the education out there, giving the resources to physicians, we’re going to see major change.
Jay Ruderman: Now that you’ve had a great deal of success, are others copying you? Are there other doctors who are now saying yeah, this is the way to reach and treat many more people than I’m able to do in my office?
Dr. Varshavski: Since I’ve started my platforms, what I’ve seen is not only doctors pick up and one to one copy what I’m doing in terms of the type of posts that I put out, naming their usernames identically to mine, I also see hospital systems doing exactly what I’ve been doing. The type of information I’ve been putting out. Why doctors need to be on social media. Why the absence is harmful to our patients. Mayo Clinic started a social media institute. There’s new positions being created for physicians where they are the chief social media officers of their hospitals. Like, in Cleveland Clinic they have that. I’m proud of that. I don’t take credit for it. Maybe I played a role in that revolution, but it makes me happy to see that physicians are engaging with a new technology. Instead of just vilifying it, because it’s very easy to vilify and say oh, this is going to rot our brains, this is the reason for the uptick in anxiety … It may be. There may be problems with it. But, instead of vilifying it, we focus on what it does well. It reaches billions of people. People are constantly surrounded by this type of information. There’s a lot of bad information out there and we focus on that. Target what it does well and embrace it. I’m so happy to see that not only doctors but full institutions are making use of social media.
Jay Ruderman: When you’re doing a broadcast, there’s so many topics that you could cover. How do you make the decision on what to talk about?
Dr. Varshavski: It’s a difficult condition for me to consistently make quality content because I don’t have a full team around. Most people, when they look at the scale of what I’m doing, they assume that there is a major team behind us. Writers, producers, directors. It’s myself and my videographer/editor. Two people making 150 videos within the last two years. Consistently posting at the times we promised to deliver the content. Well edited, well researched. No medical misinformation in there. And, it’s tough. Because I want to not only deliver quality content, but at the same time I want to grow. Because when I grow it yields success to the message that I’m putting out there. For example, one of my biggest drivers in the success of my YouTube channel this year was the fact that I started doing a critique or a review of popular medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and House. Most people would look at that, at least most professionals, and say well, that’s not really useful to the community. Well, I disagree on two fronts.
Dr. Varshavski: First, I’m educating the average person that’s watching those shows what’s true, what’s not. Maybe even defining some of the terms that are in these shows. The second benefit of this, that’s lesser known, is that when 16 million people watch my video on Grey’s Anatomy, a big percentage of those people then go watch my video on diversity. They watch my video about the nursing field and how we need to support our nurses better. So, when I make my videos, I think A, which of these videos are pop culture videos that we can do a little bit of learning and lure people in, and then where are my hard hitting videos of where I want to see change in society? That happens all the time. Sometimes it’s prompted by current events. A senator says something questionable that’s causing a lot of outrage. I’ll jump right on top of that story. Share both sides, share where we can come together to make a consensus. Because that’s what it’s about. It’s not about vilifying or villainizing people, because at the end of the day that’s going to be hurtful to our message. It’s about bringing people together and educating.
Jay Ruderman: I really want to thank you for your leadership and for being an entrepreneur and thinking of a new way to move medicine forward, because I think you’re going to serve many, many people through what you’re doing. We know that 20% of the population has some form of a disability. That they are the largest and poorest part of our population and routinely receive the least healthcare. I’m hoping after attending the course at MIT that you’ll focus on people with disabilities and helping them and really getting them the information that they’re going to need to lead healthier lives. Dr. Varshavski, I want to thank you for joining me today. You’ve built a strong social media platform, and through that you’re shattering stigma and will lead to change. I know you’ll make our society better, so thank you.
Dr. Varshavski: Thank you so much for the opportunity. I look forward to meeting that challenge and improving access and quality of care.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you.
Announcer: All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to rudermanfoundation.org/all-inclusive. Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet @JayRuderman.