Dr. Bryan Vartabedian – The MDigitalLife Interview

Posted by: in Healthcare Insights, MDigitalLife, Medical Communications, Social Media Insights & Trends on January 11, 2012

“Doctors are beginning to realize that Google is the new CV.”

– Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, on changes in physicians’ attitudes towards social media

Bryan Vartabedian was standing in front of about a hundred of his peers at America’s largest pediatric hospital –  Texas Children’s … some of the toughest critics around.  Pediatric Grand Rounds.  And he was about to talk to them about the ethics of physicians in Social Media.

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Anyone who works in healthcare seems to be imbued with the notion that doctors have no interest in social media.  Three years ago, they’d have largely been right.  And today?  Things are changing fast.  Manhattan Research tells us that doctors’ internet use increased almost 400% between 2002 and 2009, and anecdotal evidence would tell is that those numbers have been dwarfed in the last two years. There are now thousands of doctors who are using blogs, twitter, Facebook and YouTube to communicate every day – with each other, with other parts of the health system, and yes – with their patients.

Dr. Vartabedian, a pediatric gastroenterologist who studied at the University of Massachusetts, has over the last three years become one of the leading thinkers on the the role of social media in medicine.  But it happened more or less by accident.  Dr. Vartabedian (known to his patients as “Dr. V” and to his online audience as “@doctor_v“) originally had a much more traditional reason for establishing a social media presence – and it had little to do with doctoring.

In 2006, he wrote his first book, “Colic Solved: The Essential Guide to Infant Reflux and the Care of Your Crying, Difficult-to- Soothe Baby.”  One of his editors told him that any author needed to have a blog in order to help sell books … so he started Parenting Solved … a blog for parents focused on diet, nutrition and digestion for your kids (side note: wish I’d known about it sooner!).  The blog wound up becoming a quiet success, engaging an audience of parents and a way to amplify the point of view he’d espoused in the book.  It also provided an early “Eureka” moment: In 2006, when Novartis began the process of selling its Gerber (baby food) unit, Dr. Vartabedian wrote a post called, simply, Gerber for Sale. The post drew the interest of the European financial press, who subsequently interviewed him on the subject.  It was to be the first of many times that Dr. V would be sought out by the press based on his blog.  According to Dr. V, “It turns out that when you’re an early adopter of anything – in this case social media – everybody wants to talk to you.”  And when you’re selling a book, or growing a private practice, that can be a very good thing.

After a few years of blogging at Parenting Solved, Dr. V admits that he started “getting burned out with the ‘reassuring voice of authority’ for parents.”  And his interest online had begun to shift.  AMA News had asked him what doctors should be doing if they were approached by their patients on facebook, and so he wrapped his philosophy on the subject into a 9-step answer that eventually turned into a post on his new blog, 33 Charts: “9 Things to Consider when Patients Contact You via Social Media.”  The piece, written in 2009, is still being circulated as a social media primer for doctors today.  And 33 Charts, “the intersection of medicine, social media and technology,” is still going strong.  In fact, it’s become the center of Dr. V’s online community.  While he is active on facebook and twitter (where I met him nearly three years ago through the #hcsm tweetchat), the blog is where most of the action is happening for Dr. V and the doctors with whom he’s discussing the future of medicine.

Dr. V has often been quoted telling today’s medical students that when they retire, “the practice of medicine will look nothing like the doctoring of today.”  And while many young doctors are leading the charge, Dr. V believes that medical schools need to take a long, hard look at their model – which largely hasn’t changed since being introduced by Dr. Abraham Flexner in 1910.  Flexner’s ideas represented a radical departure from prior medical training – and Dr. V believes that a similar revolution is beginning now.  Vanderbilt University, featured in the New York Times’ WellBlog in December (Dr. Pauline Chen’s “A Medical School More Like Hogwarts“), has generated significant controversy in the medical community – but what they’re doing is just the beginning.  And certainly there are few if any med schools what have begun to train future doctors on digital communications.  They’ve been left to figure it out for themselves – or learn it from pioneers like Dr. V.  And the cultural change is significant for people who can be sued for millions if they ever make a mistake – and often when they don’t.

Dr. V noted that, “there is a real fear [for doctors] of declaring themselves or saying what they believe in a public forum …it comes form this history we have of keeping this therapeutic distance between us and our patients.”  But the same doctors who thought he was crazy when he started blogging and tweeting are now some of the same folks who are asking for his advice today.

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As he faced down the Pediatric Grand Rounds at Texas Children’s, there’s no doubt that Dr. V was feeling a little nervous about the talk that he was preparing to give.  Though he speaks and writes about controversial subjects on a regular basis, it’s never without wondering what his peers and mentors – those whom he admires and respects – will think.  He went on to give a talk that was meant to touch on the heart of doctors’ primary reason for being in social media:

“As physicians we have an obligation to be a part of this [online] conversation.  We need to be creating content.”  There is a lot of bad (or at least biased) health content online … and people are desperate to find support from a system that’s increasingly unable to give it – especially in an 18-minute appointment with their physician.  Dr. V knows that it isn’t surprising that people are looking to interact with their doctors online … as a pediactric gastroenterologist, the patients he interacts with have young moms who essentially live on facebook – so why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to hear from their doctors there?  And although there are plenty of doctors who aren’t well-equipped to create original content, “there is a role that ANY doctor can play, and that is to curate content.  It makes a TON of sense.”

The presentation at Pediatric Grand Rounds was a success.  He knows that there were some folks out there who will never really “get it.”  But there were many more who did … who stayed afterward to talk and ask questions, who are now reading his blog, and likely following Dr. V’s twitter account as well.  While 33 Charts may not always be focused on doctors and social media, it will continue to focus on the future of medicine – the place where Dr. V and innovators like him continue to lead us.

To see the content that Dr. V presented at Pediatric Grand Rounds (and you really should), check out “Physicians, Risk and Opportunity in the Digital Age.”

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Follow Dr. V on the following channels:

33 Charts (Blog): http://33charts.com

Twitter (@doctor_v): http://twitter.com/doctor_v

Facebook (33 Charts): http://www.facebook.com/pages/33-charts/113590062029306

Sharecare: http://www.sharecare.com/user/dr-bryan-vartabedian

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ODDS and ENDS

The tools in Doctor V’s Digital Tool Belt:

  • iPhone/iPad
  • MacBook Air
  • Evernote (as a self-described “addict” – as am I: I count at least 8 posts where it’s mentioned)
  • ePocrates (iPhone app) pill identifier
  • Dr. V will frequently “prescribe” additional online resources to parents

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A sample from Dr. V’s physician reading list (going beyond the “CelebriDocs”):

 

Name Twitter Primary Blog
Porter, Chris @porteronsurg Porter on Surgery
Linda Pourmassina @lindap_md Pulsus
Stupple, Aaron @astupple Adjacent Possible Medicine
Grumet, Jordan @jordangrumet In My Humble Opinion
Lukas Zinnagl and Franz Weisbauer @zinnaglism @franzwiesbauer MedCrunch

#MDigitalLife is a WCG program designed to learn from and to showcase physicians who are blazing new trails in the digital world – changing the way that medicine is practiced and better health is realized.  The series intro is here.

 

 

 

 

By: Greg Matthews

Greg Matthews is the the creator and Managing Director of the W2O Group's MDigitalLife - Understanding, Engaging and Activating Physicians in the Digital Age

Find me on: Twitter
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3 Responses

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  1. Great post Greg. Dr. V really gets it. Though this is still (arrestingly) in the works, we’ve had some great conversations with him about applying social media analytics to better understand patient and doctor behavior online. We have a good understanding of influence, and a good understanding of how people find online information–the next step is pairing influential doctors with patients seeking information. Too often patients are consuming unverified perspective from unqualified online outlets–the result can be the difference between life and death.

  2. Thanks, Naimul! Agree – think that doctors are our key to overcoming the flood of health-related spam and garbage on the internet … hope that Dr. V and his colleagues can band together to stem that tide … I know that’s the goal. And a great tee-up to next week’s interview with Dr. Howard Luks!!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. From 9 Tablet Tips to the 15 Most Wired Hospitals « ScienceRoll linked to this post on January 23, 2012

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