Earlier this month, KevinMD ran a dispiriting piece by Mark Britton on how, exactly, we reached the point where Jenny McCarthy — a person who rose to fame by removing all of her clothes — could become a medical thought leader. Britton nails exactly why McCarthy was able to corner the market on autism advocacy: in today’s wild, anyone-can-publish-anything world, she has been able to leverage all of the tools at her disposal, from Twitter to Huffington Post to traditional publishing. That her point of view is, at best, wrong and, at worst, dangerous, hasn’t kept her from being the go-to “mommy warrior” for millions.
And it’s not just celebs that have been able to build themselves into experts: advocates and advocacy groups armed with nothing more than a Twitter handle or a Facebook account can easily organize dedicated groups of meaningful size. Most of these groups are welcome additions to the marketplace of ideas, but some peddle false hope or stoke misdirected anger.
But in the cacophony, one set of voices remains under-represented: those of doctors and other public health experts. This isn’t entirely surprising: the medical hierarchy is built on commitment to patients, research and medicine, not to social-media volume. Doing hand-to-hand online combat with former Playboy bunnies or pseudonymous voices is time consuming, and success hard to define. Perhaps that’s the reason why — when professionals fight back — they usually do it in the traditional way: a book, some interviews, a TV appearance or two.
Take Paul Offit, the University of Pennsylvania vaccinologist who has emerged as the best, most sane voice in the vaccination debate. He’s written two fantastic books. He’s had op-eds in the New York Times, been reviewed by NPR and even had a head-to-head with the Mike Wallace of our time, Stephen Colbert. But he has no blog and he has used his Twitter account, dormant since May, only 33 times. Jenny McCarthy has tweeted 33 times in the last 48 hours (including a half-dozen autism-related posts). On paper, there is no doubt who should wield more authority. But this battle isn’t being fought on paper. It’s being fought online.
Still, nowhere is it written that health care authorities can’t provide strong leadership online, and there are at least three models to consider:
- Dr. Leonard Lichtenfeld: The American Cancer Society’s “Dr. Len” has a blog and an active Twitter account. But it’s not just that he has the new media tools — it’s a rare organization that doesn’t — what sets Lichtenfeld apart is how he uses the tools at his disposal. His posts are topical, and he is a participant on Twitter, carrying on conversations with advocates and media. ACS has a number of tools for getting their message out, but none seem as authentic or authoritative as their online efforts.
- Dr. Harlan Krumholtz: Building a social media audience from scratch can be difficult, but Krumholtz, one of the leaders in cardiology, has leveraged existing networks to ensure his voice can get out to the public, unfiltered. He is plugged into the Forbes.com as a contributor, giving him the ability to reach a broad audience, and he works with the publisher of the New England Journal of Medicine to edit CardioExchange, a cardiology-specific social network.
- Dr. Howard Luks: And for brute force on Twitter, it’s hard to top Luks, an orthopedist in New York, who has generated nearly 15,000 tweets on the intersection of technology and medicine. While he has a blog (and quick, effective videos and a Posterous account), it’s clear he’s focused most of his energy on Twitter, and the payoff is obvious.
These aren’t the only docs who have successfully leverage social media, but the strategies these three have employed could be templates. And we need templates. Social media isn’t a toy or a distraction. It is, for better or worse, a tool that helps define how millions view medicine. Right now, that tool is not being used most effectively by the people that we most need to hear from.
[ADDENDUM: If there are docs out there that want to build their digital footprint but aren’t entirely certain how to get started, please drop us a line and we’ll point you in the right direction. Increasingly, there are excellent tools to amplify expertise that don’t require the care and feeding of a full-fledged blog. One of these options is Sharecare (disclosure: Sharecare is a WCG client), which has built an expert-driven Q-and-A site for health questions.]