An HIT Moment with … is a quick interview with someone we find interesting. Bryan Vartabedian, MD FAAP is a physician and author of the 33 Charts blog.
Give me some background on yourself.
I am a pediatric gastroenterologist at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. I first came to social media in 2006 when I started a blog in order to promote the book I was about to publish. I heard that, as an author, it is really helpful to have a dynamic changing presence on the Internet, like a blog. I started at that time thinking I was just going to use this as a tool to promote my book. I thought I couldn’t keep this up; that it would a few months and die off. But I never really stopped. It kind of evolved beyond just trying to sell a book. I recognized the reach that I had through expressing my opinions on a blog. And so it continued.
It’s really just been over the last month or two that I have transitioned from a blog writing for parents to a blog writing more about issues of health and issues of health and how it intersects with social media. That is a fairly recent development for me even though it has been something I have been actively involved in and interested in. I came to Twitter last year with the same mindset. I said this is kind of interesting. I knew very few physicians on Twitter, said this sounds like fun and jumped into it. I really enjoyed the dialog that I had with other physicians and other patients, it gives me a real lens into what other people are thinking. I have about 1,200 followers currently and I am realizing there is real power to it. I did a post just last night on a new software platform called Hello Health, which is like a Facebook for physicians and allows patients and physicians to interact on a fee-for-service basis. I sent out a Twitter this morning on it and just had an enormous, enormous response. A viral retweeting. There’s no way I could have gotten the word out about that blog post without the assistance of Twitter.
What is your main focus – providing information or health news?
For about 2-1/2 years I was really writing as a pediatrician writing for parents. My audience was really consumer parents looking for information. I was covering timely health issues and parenting and children’s health, providing a unique voice and a real practical point of view for a lot of controversial issues. One thing I realized over time was with parents coming to the web they would come to my site with search engines they’d get information and they’d go away. I found this very unsatisfying because I wanted with my blog a real sense of community, and it’s really hard to develop community around children’s health issues, for whatever reason. Plus, I am a doctor, and it’s parents that are reading. But when I would write about doctor issues, as I am currently, I have a lot more comments and a lot more people who want to chime in and be part of the conversation. I like this idea of generating community around my blog, which was missing in my old way. I used to write health information for parents and now I am doing more commentary on medicine issues and how it intersects with social media.
As social media become a bigger part of healthcare, who stands to gain the most: the physicians or patients?
Interesting because one of the things that I am picking up on (and I am not the first) is that doctors are really late adopters of new technology and social media is a great example of that. There are really very few physicians on Twitter and there are very physicians who blog. If you look at pediatricians who blog, for example, if you scour the Internet you will only find a handful of regularly blogging pediatricians on a consistent basis. Physicians haven’t really taken advantage of using social media, either for themselves or more importantly, to advance health causes.
An example is the issue of vaccines and autism. You hear controversy about connecting vaccines with autism. If you Google it, the first two pages that come up are really occupied with anti-vaccine material. Yet the physicians write very, very little about it. Physicians really haven’t taken enough of a role to generate the content. There are 60,000 pediatricians in AAP, and if each member made one blog post a year on the vaccine controversy, it would dispel all those myths. We’d dominate the search engine with content that is valid.
I really think physicians have an ethical obligation to be part of the blog responses and comments. I don’t think physicians have really taken advantage of it for their businesses or practices or for the promotion or propagation of good health information. I see myself playing a role in trying to explore this space to see how we can use it to our advantage.
Obviously social media use is about helping patients – that’s the obvious sale. And patients are interacting with one another. With Web 1.0 we were really just reading information online, just like you would read a newspaper. But with Web 2.0 we are really establishing communities and communicating amongst ourselves. I have seen this in the office. It has been a huge boon with patients with rare diseases or parents with kids with rare diseases. They have communities and networks where they can share information, and that is really the power there.
Do you think social media are a fad or do you believe it they will eventually become mainstream in their use and acceptance?
I hear that sometimes, that social media is a fad. You often hear it from traditional publicists and traditional public affairs officers who think this is just a passing thing. The idea of people communicating with one another and networking is not a new thing. It’s really just new technology for doing something we have been doing for tens of thousands of year. I don’t think it is going away. The question I always ask is: “How are doctors going to use this? In five years from now, how are doctors going to be using social media?” I can’t answer that question, I don’t know. But I don’t think it is a fad.
How do you get more doctors onto the bandwagon?
There has to be an incentive for doctors to be involved in social media. It’s like adoption of any new technology. There has to be an incentive or a value proposition for them. Someone made a great comment on one of my posts last week about this. Doctors are very, very busy. Until you can demonstrate that being present on Twitter or having a regular blog or being present on the Internet in a social way, until you can prove that has real benefit, a real return on investment, it’s going to be very, very hard to draw physicians into this. It’s happening very slowly. But there has to be an incentive for them. To me it is a no-brainer. My visibility online has yielded all kinds of benefits. But it’s very hard, and we argue about this, how we will get doctors involved in social media.