Not only do they take on influenza―thriving this season―doctors have now become influencers, too. Ever since the coronavirus brought doctors and patients closer than ever, these 'docfluencers'―many of them specialists―have been giving out advice on their popular social media handles. Followers can reach out to them any time, without waiting lines and consultation fees, and ask about anything medical on their mind.
It is also a way for doctors to show off their creative side―get in front of the camera, shoot, record, edit and post engaging content―at the same time managing an ever-increasing patient load. The urge to connect with a wider audience, the instant gratification that comes from a spike in follower count, and the opportunity to be seen, to demystify medicine and to establish a unique digital identity have led a number of doctors to create their own brand image on social media. They bring in their expertise and knowledge to millions of worried minds, especially at a time when genuine medical advice is hard to come by.
But there are pitfalls, too. Helen Partridge of the University of Southern Queensland, who published a research paper on ResearchGate, identified the potential benefits and challenges of physicians adopting social media. The benefits―networking with the wider community, sharing knowledge and personal branding, among others. The challenges―maintaining confidentiality, finding time, workplace acceptance and support, and information anarchy.
It takes time to balance both and you learn on the job.
Docfluencers are a growing breed in India, too, especially with the proliferation of mobile phones and cheap data in recent years. Here are five medical experts who share their motivations for getting on to social media and what keeps them at it, day in and day out.
Dr Abby Philips, hepatologist, Rajagiri Hospital, Kochi (@theliverdoc)
In 2019, Abby Philips published a paper in the Indian Journal of Gastroenterology. It was based on a patient who he claimed died of liver failure because of a drug sold by an alternative medicine company. Apparently, the drug contained contaminants, toxic herbs and heavy metals that damaged the liver. It was the first such reported case from the Asia-Pacific region.
The moment the study was published, the company filed a defamation suit against him for $2 million and allegedly got the paper removed from the journal without his permission. Philips, who had till then been largely passive on social media, tweeted the entire episode in a long thread, highlighting the plight of a whistleblower who faced the “wrath of a mighty herbal medicine company”. The post went viral within minutes and Philips, for the first time, saw his follower count rise from a few hundred to four figures in hours. It was a high like never before; a reaffirmation that a world out there was listening and wanted to know more. And so, turning “aggressively active” on Twitter, the liver doc began posting long threads on “evidence-based stories” of how real patients whom he consults became “victims of liver failure as a result of consumption of alternative medicines”. Today, more than 71,000 people follow him on Twitter, and he has just signed a book deal―he will be writing about “hepatology and the harms of alternative medicine on the health of the liver”.
To do all this while also being a senior consultant hepatologist at Rajagiri Hospital in Kochi has not been easy. He practises in the day and turns researcher and scientist at night. Because it is at night that the energy level to prove a point is at its peak, he says in an interview. It is the time best used for preparing content, say a video on debunking myths around the use of papaya leaves for increasing platelet count or data analysis for a research paper on liver damage resulting from “contaminated herbal drug use”. Two meals a day, five hours of sleep, loads of coffee, an eight-and-a-half hour stint at the hospital and the “desperate urge to inform and educate patients” keep Philips going. The precious minutes he gets in between tasks at the hospital is when he goes through his timeline to like, post and retweet.
“I believe that my content has to be interesting and factual,” says the father of two daughters and a son, aged nine, five and three. “Every time I come across an interesting case study in my routine practice, I simply tweet about it. That could range from three tweets a day to maybe one or two tweets in three to four days. It all depends on the content I have. I do not follow the herd mentality of adhering to volumes.”
He learnt this over time. Early on, he would spend every waking minute browsing through his timeline, obsessing over the number of likes, comments, shares and the irresistible follower count. “My wife was sick of it and called me an addict. It was difficult to get over it, but I have finally done it,” he says, as if heaving a sigh of relief.
If Twitter is an outlet, YouTube is a different animal altogether. “I write the concept, shoot, record, edit and post the videos all on my own, at least twice a month. I am self-taught; all you need to do is learn from YouTube to post on YouTube,” he says, laughing. This, he does from a part of the apartment converted into a studio space where he has his light and sound equipment and “pin-drop silence”.
Though his follower count keeps growing, Philips has also published 16 research papers this year alone. “It is a thrill to be so involved and so active. It does not burn me out. If it does, I just play games on my PC,” he says.
Philips often gets trolled and is threatened with lawsuits. But that is what keeps him going. “There was a time when I used to engage with trolls, but I see there is no point in responding to those who [attack] me for my evidence-based takes, but do not substantiate their claims with evidence of any kind. They are simply science deniers.”
Dr Agni Bose is a skin specialist with a difference. He consults on dermatology offline and counsels on sexual health online. This is because his degree says “dermatology and venereology”, and he takes that quite seriously. “Why do doctors brush this aspect aside? Despite having studied venereology (it is part of the dermatology course), there is so much stigma and shyness within us doctors that we do not want to see those patients,” he says. “[We] rather focus on rich celebs for fillers, Botox, cosmetic procedures and more.”
A senior consultant at Mumbai's KEM Hospital, Bose sees himself as a “regular doctor” who tries to make medical education fun and accessible, busting myths related to issues that are “taboo” and routinely brushed under the carpet. Call him an influencer and he cringes. “Medical content creator is a better term,” he says. That is his second job, one that he gets down to immediately after returning from hospital every night. He takes on topics like 'How to treat stretch marks', 'Should women shave?' and 'How to cure dandruff' in Reels that last only a few seconds. The snappy videos have earned him more than 1.3 lakh followers on Instagram, and the videos on 'Manicure and pedicure,' and 'How to wash your face' have millions of views.
With studio lights, a high-end camera and a lot of dramatic flair, Bose churns out videos that are “gripping and fun so as to capture attention in the first three seconds”.
While the engagement on social media is in itself addictive, it is also an escape from the stress of working in a government hospital, attending to patients, doing surgeries, delivering lectures to students and attending emergency calls.
Bose first started putting out content about 14 months ago, immediately after he became a consultant after his MD exam. He downloaded editing software, took tutorials online, taught himself the tricks of the social media game and gradually got in place an editing team. He is serious about being good at it. “After all, I am going to be doing this for a lifetime,” says the son of two doctors based in Doha. “Work from 9am to 4pm, and then create content because this industry has just started. The scope is huge.”
Apart from all this, he is also pursuing a fellowship in dermatosurgery. “At times it is not easy to create fresh content every day because there is just no time,” he says. “That is when pre-recorded content comes handy and can be posted in batches.” At the moment, he is uploading videos from his fellowship to keep the page active.
The crucial part of being a doctor on social media is that potential patients find it easy to approach you, which translates into OPD patients, too. The reverse is also true. “I learnt early on that to excel as a docfluencer, I have to be good at what I do in the OPD,” says Bose. “That is when they will start
taking me seriously on social media, too.”
He was surprised that men came to him saying that, because of him, it had become easier for them to access answers to sexual health problems. “Dermatology and sexual health are specialised areas that are expensive for a patient, especially in non-metros,” he says. “So, through these videos, I am reaching a far bigger audience across the country and outside, and it is helping everyone. Also, I saw this huge gap in the area of counselling for sexual health, especially for men. I myself had to look up YouTube to learn how to wear a condom. The point is to make talk about reproductive health as commonplace as talk about stomach ache.”
His popularity has earned him offers from numerous brands, ranging from skincare and haircare to those selling sex toys. He began monetising after he reached 10,000 followers; his first brand collaboration came 11 months into his online journey and the image he built helped him make money offline, too. “The best part is that I do not even post every single day; it is thrice a week,” he says. “I do not have the kind of time to do this daily and there is also no point in bombarding the audience with too much.”
In July, Dr Sid Warrier posted a video on YouTube titled, 'Why do we enjoy kissing?' Dressed in a navy-blue tee, Warrier explained the neuroscience of kissing in 60 seconds to his near 84,000 followers. A neurologist at Mumbai's Wockhardt Hospitals since 2019, Warrier posts videos that help people “understand their brain better”. A video he posted six months back, 'A scientific explanation on how exercise affects your brain', got 14,000 likes for its directness and engaging nature. He had started the channel ten years ago to share his interests, including poetry, ghazals, lyrics and soothing guitar tunes.
Born to a physician father who owns a nursing home in Mumbai and a mother who teaches Carnatic music, Warrier turned into a scientist with a creative mind. As he pursued his MBBS and MD at KEM in Mumbai, followed by a masters in neurology from Lucknow, he continued to indulge in art. He wrote lyrics and started a poetry club, played music to an audience of friends and students, and posted his couplets and ghazals on Instagram.
His “real debut” on social media was serendipitous. In 2020, during the lockdown, he suddenly found a lot of free time as neurology took a backseat to the virus. He sensed an opportunity―online classes for medical students on neurology and neuroscience. He had about 200 followers on Twitter and 600 on Instagram, most of them colleagues and friends. But the lectures, explaining why we do the things we do, became an instant hit.
His channel really took off when, one morning, comedian Tanmay Bhat invited him to do livestreams on medical topics. They did one on the neuroscience of humour and why we take offence, and Warrier's subscriber count shot up from 800 to 2,500 in two minutes. “It was Tanmay who showed my Insta page on his livestream and whoa! It was a high I had never experienced before,” he says. He currently has 1.39 lakh followers on Instagram.
Warrier's social media handles became his playground, an outlet for poetry, podcasts, neuroscience, live gaming and more. Every day he would go to work; every night he would be on social media. “In the past six months, more and more people started coming to my OPD for consultation,” he says. “While leaving, they would say, 'By the way, I saw your Instagram and your videos'. Nowadays, everybody looks up the doctor and the first links that come up are social media handles. If somebody sees my videos before they come to me, the trust is stronger and they are already thinking favourably of me. So yes, having a public face definitely helps.”
Juggling multiple things at a time, believes Warrier, comes easy to those who have done residencies in government hospitals. “It teaches you everything you need to know about hard work because it is almost like a war zone,” he says. “But the only advantage is that you never feel overworked in your life. So I did build resilience as a survival hack early on.”
After putting up a lot of content initially, Warrier has slowed down. “There was a time when I posted one reel every day for almost two months,” he says. “But now that work in the hospital is also increasing, I have taken that pressure off myself. I still think of myself as a doctor who shares things on social media because he wants to talk about it. I do not follow algorithms.
“Earlier, on the way back from work, I would read about stuff and note down topics to make Reels on, come home, record, edit and put it out. Soon, it got so frustrating that I realised I needed a team.” He now has three freelance editors. “Everybody who is successful and consistent on social media has a team. Now I record once or twice a week, and post three to four times a week on Instagram.”
Warrier has a studio space at home where he records. It is him with his laptop, a USB mic, camera and ring lights. He records on Wednesday mornings when work starts late and has started making money from YouTube. “Once you cross 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 view hours, YouTube starts paying you,” he says. “It runs ads on your videos and gives you a percentage of that. Money really started coming in in 2020 because I started livestreaming. It could be anywhere between Rs10,000 to Rs40,000 to lakhs a month.”
Recently, Warrier decided to shed all the other interests on his YouTube and concentrate on neuroscience. “This is a serious business,” he says. “Content creators are not individuals, but a production house in themselves. The future for me is digital, and if doctors feel that their jobs are completely safe, they are mistaken. Very soon precision tech, which will be algorithm-based, will replace us because science is evidence-based.”
Rebecca Pinto, physiotherapist, Mumbai
Pinto's Reels provide answers to those physiology problems that are too small to see a doctor or not worth the consultation fee. The examples―'Do you have a frozen shoulder?', 'Does coffee have any side effects?', 'Are you someone who is always typing or writing? Here are five exercises for your fingers.'
To her 2.3 lakh Instagram followers, Pinto, a physiotherapist from Mumbai, comes across as a young, good-looking medical expert who simplifies some of the most common problems they encounter in daily life. On an average, her videos get views that run into five figures; the one on the benefits of bathing with cold water reached a lakh.
As with most others, Pinto, too, started “influencing” during the pandemic. “We were all in a lockdown and, being the workaholic that I am, I was looking for more ways to work,” she says. “So, I created my account and it helped me reach out to people who were looking for online consultations. As I understood Instagram more, I started making informative content that is shareable and fun.” She continues to share at least one post every day. “Luckily, I am very organised professionally,” she says. “I shoot content in a batch once or twice a month and trust me it is so much easier that way. Sometimes I find topics from conversations with patients, too. I just note it down and eventually, whenever the shoot is scheduled, it is executed. I spend about three hours once in two to three weeks to shoot content. Creating ideas and editing takes most of the time.”
As of now, Pinto has been spared the trolling. “I was warned that I will get DMs and comments that won’t be pleasing, but that has never happened,” she says. “The comments are appreciative and sweet. The pressure is honestly a lot because there is constant feedback from people who want to see you grow and know your potential. Also, trends keeps changing and by the time you understand something, something new is already here. We are all just constantly learning.”
The best part, she says, is that it does not take away from patient care. “There is so much that can be done online in terms of treatment and we only realise it when we start executing it,” she says. “Also, it does not restrict you to a certain area and we can consult anyone with internet access, which is amazing.”
Dr Bhateja's first video on Instagram is dated October 8. In about two months and around 25 videos later, he has earned close to 1.9 lakh followers. Having studied at M.S. Ramaiah Medical College in Bengaluru and Seth G.S. Medical College in Mumbai, Bhateja's dream of becoming a neurosurgeon was realised at NIMHANS, Bengaluru. After close to three decades in the industry, Bhateja recently decided to share his experience and knowledge with his followers on social media. This is because medicine is not the only thing he is passionate about; technology has been at the heart of everything he did as a neurosurgeon.
“My life is not all about surgery and medicine,” he says. “One of my biggest passions is the sport of cycling. I cycle, follow professional cycling and train for and compete in races through the year. Coffee and reading also keep me occupied.”
His videos include topics like―'You have a severe headache... is it something to worry about?' and 'You have a brain tumour... are you going to die? Most probably not'. In another video, he talks about how 95 per cent of all headaches do not have any serious underlying condition and follows it up with warning signs for headaches. He always ends with, “For more information, follow my page.”
His videos, which have around 7,000 likes on average, are short, crisp and to the point. Bhateja, in a gown, sits on a chair and speaks straight to the viewer. A skeletal frame hangs behind him.
Every morning he cycles to work in an apron and a face mask. This is followed by OPD consultations and surgeries, and social media in between. Recently, he hosted an Insta live session with a cardiologist and a sports physiotherapist to understand the impact of running on the heart.
“Never in my wildest dreams did my team and I expect this channel to attain this follower count this quickly,” he says on his page, thanking his followers for “all the love”.
“Informative, interesting and actionable content” is the hallmark of his page, through which he hopes to “add value and educate people to lead better and healthier lives”.