Physicians Building a Community Through Social Media

By Hannah O. Brown
October 12, 2018

Doctors can use blogs and other digital outlets to educate patients, build online reputations and, perhaps most importantly, have an outlet for their opinions. 

In 2004, an interaction with a patient changed the way Kevin Pho, MD, thought about social media

Pho’s patient told him how she was comforted by a post on his blog, KevinMD, that outlined alternatives to a medication that recently had been recalled. 

kevin pho

Kevin Pho

“That was really my lightbulb moment, where I can use these media tools to really connect with patients outside of the exam room,” says Pho, an internal medicine physician who has practiced in New Hampshire for the past 15 years.

In the time since that interaction, his website has become a respected social media platform for health care professionals. It has been recognized by major news organizations, including the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. 

Pho receives between 20 and 30 unsolicited daily submissions — contributions from physicians, nurses, medical students and patients — and he has published work from more than 2,000 people. Many of contributions focus on seldom-discussed topics that are common in physician experiences but are typically out of public view, such as physician burnout and assisted suicide. 

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“I like to share these stories all in one forum and really open up the discussion because, in health care, there are very few issues that everyone agrees on,” Pho says. “I think that using my site as a springboard for both patients and physicians to tell the stories that really open up a discussion and hopefully helps bring everyone together.” 

In Pho’s opinion, there are three major reasons why physicians are motivated to contribute to blogs and other forms of social media: to educate their patients, build their online reputations, and have an outlet for their opinions. 

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The last point, Pho says, is crucial to the representation of physicians overall. 

“A lot of the health care reform topics, the decisions are being made by nonphysicians,” he says. “But I think it’s important for physicians to have their voice and contribute to the health care conversation.” 

While some physicians prefer sharing their voices through well-established sites such as KevinMD, others start by creating their own blogs. One neurologist of 20 years started his blog, Doctor Grumpy in the House, as a way to share the stories he was saving to include in his book. 

“But, as many find out, you don't have time for that,” he says. “So, in 2008, I started this blog to share the stories, and the blog is my book.” 

The physician, who blogs under the pseudonym Ibee Grumpy, MD, says he has maintained his blog because, more than anything else, it is a fun and cathartic hobby.  

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“The ad revenue isn't worth the time, maybe $100 a month, so I'm not doing this to get rich,” he says. “I think, like many bloggers, you keep hoping you'll get a big break and become famous and have millions of readers so that you can cut back on the real job hours somewhat, but realistically that really doesn't happen much. After eight years, it's mostly just for the fun of it.” 

He says the biggest challenge of keeping a blog is finding the time to write posts. Second is deciding what to write about. Though his blog is known for its humorous nature, Grumpy says his favorite stories are the ones that are a bit more serious, such as his 2011 post about his first malpractice suit. 

“Getting sued is like cancer — something that happens to other people,” he wrote. “I think all doctors, on a superficial level, know it will likely happen. But you're still blindsided when it happens to you.” 

Jeff Barson, an entrepreneur who has helped establish such medical websites as Uncommon Student MD and Medical Spa MD, believes it is important for physicians to use social media as a way to discuss the issues that matter most to them. 

Barson regularly accepts contributions from physicians and other medical professionals for his websites. In his experience, many physicians are interested in having their voices heard but are unsure of how strongly they can voice their opinions. 

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“If you are trying to please everybody, it can be pretty bland,” he says. 

“What generates the most interest is not actually brain surgery — it’s if you are actually interesting,” Barson says. “If you are writing interesting stuff, people will be interested in it. What I tell physicians is, you should be writing the stuff that you want to read.” 

But for some, blogging is less about engaging their audience and more about expressing themselves — a kind of therapy to vent stress and build a community of like-minded followers. For Pho, blogging has always been a way to avoid burnout. 

“I think one way to combat physician burnout is to have a passion outside of clinical medicine,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy seeing patients, of course. I still see patients four days a week. But I think if I saw patients every day, every 15 minutes, dealing with mountains of bureaucratic paperwork, I’d probably get burnt out, too. And let’s face it, patients need more than a frustrated doctor.” 

Pho says many of his contributors use blogging for the same purpose: to connect with others about the challenges of practicing medicine. 

“If you look at some of the recent statistics, about half of doctors are experiencing burnout today,” Pho says. “I’ve shared hundreds of these stories on my site, and they all say how valuable it is to have that platform where they can share stories with each other and let each other know that they are in the same boat. I think it’s tremendously important to let burnt-out doctors know that they are not suffering in silence.” 

Hannah O. Brown is a freelance health care journalist based in Florida.

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