Wendy Sue Swanson, MD – the MDigitalLife Interview

Posted by: in Healthcare Insights, MDigitalLife, Medical Communications, Social Media Insights & Trends on August 2, 2012

#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.  You can find previous posts here.

“Doctors have been in media for years.  But why is it so unusual for a doctor be the genesis of the news rather than just reacting to it?”

Wendy Sue Swanson, MD

Doctors communicate constantly.  They read medical journals.  They listen to and talk to patients.  They consult each other.  They write scholarly articles and papers. Yet it’s very, very seldom that they are asked to create content for the general public – with the office of the Surgeon General and Dr. Oz being the most notable exceptions.  Wendy Sue Swanson was one of those doctors.  She started doing media interviews when she was in residency – when someone from the media had a question that required an MD response.  But in 2007, everything changed.  Jenny McCarthy went on Oprah and said that vaccinations cause autism.

I try to imagine what that must have been like for pediatricians.  I’m guessing that most underestimated the impact that a former playboy model could have on such a critical health issue … and underestimated the very high level of “vaccine hesitancy” experienced by so many parents.  It was after seeing how much that impacted her patients that Dr. Swanson came forward to her hospital, Seattle Childrens, and told them that they needed to have a platform for creating and disseminating dynamic content to the public.  Thus, in 2009, the Seattle Mama Doc blog was born.  Dr. Swanson introduced the blog here:


“Parents just want to do what is right. It’s the defining what’s right that, on occasion, remains elusive.

We all want information to facilitate decisions that let us rest easier at night. Having my own two children makes this reach for what is right palpable. I want to help you decipher some of the current medical news I juggle in my life as both a pediatrician and a mother. I will share my stories and tell how it all feels to me. I will ask my colleagues, peers and friends for help, and uncover powerful lessons to share. I’ll offer online helpful resources, and share methods I learn from patients, friends and family, both in and out of the field of medicine, to help me find answers.”

Wendy Sue Swanson, from the Seattle Mama Doc blog

Accompanied by a series of simple videos posted on YouTube (on her own channel as well as the hospital’s), the blog began to take off.  A twitter account followed, leading Dr. Swanson to become one of the most recognized physicians online.  The visibility of Dr. Swanson’s online presence led to increasingly frequent appearances in the media – both in Seattle and nationally – reacting to news stories of the day.

That has helped Dr. Swanson to achieve her fundamental mission (“Helping parents to do what’s right.”) and bridge the divide between patients and physicians.  It’s given her a platform to share real, valuable health-related content to the families who are desperately seeking it – and having trouble finding it.  WCG estimates, for example, that 85-90% of internet content related to pharmaceutical products is spam – almost all of it devoid of any real value to the consumer.   When Dr. Swanson writes on her blog, or records videos for the hospital, or speaks at a conference or event (as she frequently does), she determines the topic and produces the content. But like most doctors who begin to establish a high profile, when she does “traditional media” – e.g., TV spots, she tends to be consulted on a specific subject of the network’s choosing.  But starting later this summer, Dr. Swanson has earned a rare privilege – she’ll be doing 9 monthly “spots” for KING 5, the Seattle affiliate of NBC.  And she’ll have editorial control of the material – which is very exciting.

TV and radio are still capable of bringing large audiences in contact with content and messages – whether good or bad. But the truth is that a large and growing number of people are no longer willing to “passively consume” the information served up by mainstream media. They’ve begun to actively search for it – and search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing and Wolfram Alpha tend to index dynamic content – that is, content that’s created and shared using social media, very highly. Another factor is also now involved; as people engage on a daily basis with their social networks, the best and most relevant news and information has begin to find them.

One of the reasons for Dr. Swanson’s success in terms of reaching patients in large numbers online is that she recognized what many people – and even more businesses and business people – have not. That is: Creating good, compelling content online, and distributing it through the channels and media most relevant to your audience, is the most successful way to have your messages heard. In other words, it’s the most effective way for a doctor to be able to communicate – at scale – with her patients. Dr. Swanson regularly “prescribes” online resources to her patients – in many cases, from the extensive library of online content that she’s either created or curated.

Her new situation with KING 5 is a good example of that.  Her first video under the new arrangement was just released yesterday (August 1). And while it may not seem like a huge deal, there’s something important that’s changed.  As you can see from the image on the right, not only is there high-quality bite sized video – but Dr. Swanson personally selected the links at the right.  She’s using mainstream media (in this case, TV news) to drive patients to the best online content – curated by a physician.

Like many of the doctors whom we’ve talked with, Dr. Swanson has found that by creating and sharing great content, she’s been able to draw patients to her practice and to the hospital – she says that her “practice has been full for years – and it’s all because of the online activity.  It’s an easy way for people to find and get comfortable with me and what I stand for.  That part is a no-brainer.”

But what significantly tougher how to effectively scale the kind of online activity that she’s engaged in.  “The way the system is structured today, most physicians are reimbursed when a patient comes in for an office visit – period.  There’s a financial incentive to see as many patients as possible.”  Dr. Swanson doesn’t ever see herself stopping medical practice – in spite of her growing media presence, being sought out for speaking engagements and sitting on boards for health-related businesses, and – oh yeah – being a mom to two young children.  But she also firmly believes that the work she’s doing to create and share online content has the ability to help hundreds and potentially even thousands of patients.

The fact that she works for a hospital – Seattle Childrens – that values the work she does online and compensates her accordingly for it is the exception rather than the rule. She sees that trend becoming more common, but she’s definitely still an outlier in that regard.

“We need to find a way to shift the incentives in the model to enable physicians to focus on new kinds of patient interaction – some of which we couldn’t even have imagined 10 years ago. Currently some of the most valuable work primary care docs provide in the medical home is advocacy, coordination of care, and explanations/communications. Once we put value on that, we’ll find ourselves in a more direct, and more connected relationship. But until we value communication, typical physicians are left with little time and little incentive to communicate with and about their patients.”

Wendy Sue Swanson, MD

The recognized need for doctors to be able to communicate differently with patients has been around for a long time – it predates the rise of social and digital media by many years. But the confluence we’re seeing now between patient/consumer behavior (we use the word “empowered” a lot, but it fits), the shift from acute to chronic care and the urgent need to reform the financing of healthcare suggest that new solutions are possible. We may not yet know when those solutions will start to hit the mainstream, but in the meantime we can all be thankful that Dr. Swanson and other trailblazing physicians are persistently pushing us into the future.


Keeping up with Wendy Sue Swanson is no mean feat – but if you’re up for the challenge, here are a few places you can do so:


Twitter: @seattlemamadoc

The Seattle Mama Doc blog


Seattle Childrens’ YouTube page



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

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