Famous Physicians Can Change the World, For Better or Worse

APRIL 02, 2018
Jenna Payesko


When Kevin Campbell, MD FACC, stepped into the North Carolina Heart and Vascular operating room 10 years ago, he had no reason to believe it’d be a day unlike any other. After making his rounds, Campbell chatted over the phone with a PR rep, as he had many times before. The rep asked him a few questions about a prominent local college basketball coach who’d just passed away after a heart attack. Campbell assumed his answers would be weaved into a newspiece that’d reach — maybe — a few hundred people.  

Campbell’s story wouldn’t end there. Something bigger was brewing. A slow momentum was swelling behind his words. Next thing he knew, his statements were picked up by the CBS evening news. Suddenly, his phone began ringing off the hook. First, a producer from MSNBC. Then a reporter from Fox News. And yet another, this time from CNN. Campbell began landing speaking offers left and right.

Some of the networks decided he was the perfect representative for on-demand physician opinion, so his appearances became more regular. Before long, Campbell started getting media requests from publishers. He contributed to the US News and World Report, wrote a feature story for the Wall Street Journal, and was eventually quoted in The New York Times. All that press fueled his reach, and before long, Kevin Campbell went from a practicing physician to a figurehead in US healthcare.

Campbell certainly wasn’t the first to physician to enjoy a taste of fame, and he won’t be the last, either. For better or worse, and for longer than most would think, physicians have leveraged the limelight to achieve their personal and professional goals. Nicolaus Copernicus, made famous for being the first astronomer to tout heliocentric theory, was also an esteemed physician in the late 1400s and early 1500s. Ron Paul, better known for his political aspirations than his medical career, graduated from Duke University School of Medicine in 1961 and served as a flight surgeon in the US Air Force.

Thousands and thousands of doctors have earned time in the public eye. So, how did they get there? Why did they seek out fame? And how can they ensure they’re using their time in the spotlight effectively?

Getting There

Times have changed since Campbell was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In order to maintain his audience, Campbell has changed too. He used to dedicate much of his time to writing books and making television appearances, but now, those media make up a smaller slice of the attention economy. Doctors looking to build their brand should start online and harness the (often free) power of the Internet, where anyone with a connection can develop a persona and voice, he said.

That wisdom has worked well for Deepak Chopra, MD, a well-known, but contentious figure famed for touting alternative medicine and holistic care. He told MD Magazine that books and public talks used to be essential, but most of modern brand-building action takes place on social platforms. It’s all about striving to earn new followers while continuing to keep the current audience engaged, he said, which can be difficult. Different audience members respond to different media, which means that modern doctors looking to toss their hat in the ring should know their target audience and which medium serves them best. He finds that the more he participates online, the less people feel the need to read his books — it’s a bit of a Catch-22, but one that he is learning to adapt to.

Why Fame?

For Kansas City pediatrician Natasha Burgert, MD, blogging and social media are more than methods of self-expression – they’re also important tools that can be used to extend the continuum of care. Burgert’s digital brand has evolved to become an integral part of her full-time private practice. “I’m a pediatrician, that’s what I am, that’s what I do. I take care of kids,” she said. “Social media, speaking and advocacy work are an extension of that for me. It’s not a separate part of me, it’s not a job, it’s not an agenda.”

Burgert said social media has offered a new window through which she can better understand her patients. People tend to be more honest on social media, so she can listen in and get a feel for what’s bothering patients. It’s also helped her build more meaningful and longer lasting connections — an increasingly rare phenomenon in a world of 12-minute face-to-face doctor-patient encounters.

Over the years, Burgert arrived at a happy medium where she can effectively balance maintaining a growing audience with the highs and lows of full-time private practice. For others, though, there’s a tipping point where the benefits of reaching a big audience begin to outweigh the benefits of everyday practice.

Mikhail Varshavski, DO — dubbed by his 2.7 million Instagram followers as “Hottest Doctor” on the image-sharing site — uses his fame to break the stigmas that cling to medical professionals. In his second year of medical school in 2012, someone introduced the New York-based family physician to Instagram. He decided to document his life through medical school to show that medical students don’t need to sacrifice their happiness or social lives to make it as a doctor.

His journey resonated and quickly drew more than 100,000 followers. In late 2015, the ‘hottest doctor on Instagram’ title came about and Doctor Mike went viral, as media outlets like Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, DailyMail, Time and Huffington Post, among others, got wind of his story — that there’s a young, good-looking doctor who’s dedicating his degree to shaking off prejudice and practicing successfully all the while.  

Subsequently, his account grew to 1 million followers and he was named the “Sexiest Doctor Alive” in People Magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive issue. As the headlines piled up, Varshavski found himself at a crossroads: Should he continue as a medical professional, or accept the call to fame? Varshavski thought about it — why not both? It was the perfect opportunity to build a more meaningful conversation.

Under the ‘hot doc’ moniker, and with millions of patients following along, Varshavski began to develop a voice that highlighted ways patients could collect easy wins in preventative care and family medicine. He said he strives to be relatable and capture the attention of his audience by breaking down difficult concepts and in turn providing an educational aspect. “I’m a medical channel first, but I also try to put some entertainment in there,” he told MD Magazine.

He also leverages his platform to dispel medical myths, which are in no short supply among the online patient population. “Just the other day a study came out that said drinking can help you live into your 90s more than exercising. I had to break down that study and bring everybody back to earth,” he said.

With a combined following of more than 3.8 million people, Doctor Mike caters content to the audiences of his channels. Through Instagram, he posts photos and short snippets of videos. On YouTube, he combines lifestyle-format videos and adds a doctor’s perspective to make them more medically-based.

“It all comes back to bringing medical information to the viewer, making sure that it’s quality information, and entertaining at the same time,” Doctor Mike said. “My job is to use influence as responsibly as possible, so I can bring information to millions of viewers as opposed to the 40 people I see in my office on a given day.”

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

According to Gibson, most celebrity physicians can be divided into 2 categories: physician journalists and physician entertainers. Physician journalists spread good health habits and scientific literacy, and are usually motivated by the esteem of their peers. On the other hand, physician entertainers are interested in gathering and engaging with a lay audience in order to incite an emotional reaction. This often results in their use of non-factual, overstated claims that are infrequently evidence-based and peer-reviewed.

Physician journalists, like Campbell, Burgert, Varshavski and C. Michael Gibson, MD, an interventional cardiologist, cardiovascular researcher, educator, and founder of WikiDoc Foundation, emphasized that public trust in physicians is determined by the deeds of doctors with a platform. Gibson stressed the importance of vetting information revealed to non-medical professionals, ensuring the credibility of the content. When the practice of clinical medicine turns into physician brand-building, the safety and well-being of patients — and the reputation of practitioners — can come into question.

“We have a great responsibility. Particularly when you’re a mouthpiece on a global or national stage in the media, you have a huge responsibility to choose your words very, very carefully,” Campbell said.
 
Burgert agreed, saying that effective communication is key. Quality and quantity of evidence needs to be pronounced, and the lines between opinion or evidence, and experience or medical advice, must always be made clear.

Varshavski created a name for those who claim to have all of the answers in medicine: I know all (IKA) experts. It’s his mission to create content that’s entertaining, yet medically accurate and useful, so he can steer viewers away from IKA experts and get people excited about health in a meaningful, responsible way.

“It really is a fine line that I’m constantly re-evaluating and making sure that my medical ethics come first because I am a doctor first in my career, and that is of utmost importance to me. I hate the way that we see doctors selling out and promoting some of these brain supplements and fat loss supplements and detox kits,” Varshavski concluded. “It’s just so obscure and insane that I will make sure through my last dying breath that I will never be involved in any of these crazy cures.”

Serving as a guiding voice for patients to better empower them in making informed choices throughout their health care journey is a role that these regarded physicians do not take lightly.

 “Although the beginnings were clumsy, haphazard and disorganized, the experience of developing a public presence was out of a place that remains consistent today,” Burgert concluded. “It’s humbling, it’s an honor, and it’s something that I love and am truly passionate about.”

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